Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rationalizing Not Backstory

No backstory, is the mantra. It kills the story. But it keeps showing up, time and time again. Is it because we’re just all a bunch of bad writers? Maybe we just don’t see backstory as being the problem that people keep telling us it is. Maybe we just don’t understand. Whatever the case, backstory creeps in and when we consider how closely backstory is related to flashbacks, there’s an obvious reason. The big difference between the two is that backstory comes from a different story while flashback comes from our current story. It isn’t always easy to keep them apart.

Instead of arguing against backstory, I’d like to talk about the underlying problem. I see the problem as one of rationalizing. Suppose a character is a rich garbage man. Because we don’t typically think garbage men will be rich, our natural tendency is to try to explain how he became rich and why he continues to collect garbage, but that’s part of a different story, making it backstory. It would be better to just say that he is a rich garbage man or make him more of a down to earth guy. Whatever we do, we should avoid the tendency to explain it to the reader.

Rationalizing is not limited to backstory. We may insert a plot element and then come back later with something else to show the reader why we weren’t fools when we decided to put it in. A character wants grandchild very badly. It may be that having a grandmotherly type woman in the story with no grandkids is sufficient, but we start trying to tell how she feels because she doesn’t have grandkids. It kills the movement of the plot because while we’re trying to rationalize her actions, nothing else is happening. It isn’t backstory, but it is just as bad.

If we find ourselves rationalizing, we ought to try to remove it completely. If that doesn’t help, we might try changing the plot so that we can leave out what we feel the need to rationalize.