Unkilling Those Backstory Darlings
Yes, “unkilling.” WordPress wouldn’t let me write
Killing in my post header, so I had to get creative. Shoot me, already.
On with it…
Yes, we have to be careful about how much backstory we drop into our manuscripts. It sure feels like, unless I’m reading an epic fantasy or a long family drama, that less and less backstory is being used today. And, honestly, as a reader, I’m fine with that. I like spare prose, I like tight storytelling, I like characterization that the author has managed to draw fully in a very few words.
As a writer, I’m more than fine with it…as a goal. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it. Especially in a historical novel in which the MC’s freedom is being seriously limited by her mother’s past. Especially in a picture book in which I seem to need to know lots about the two characters’ past together, none of which am I giving six actual words to explain on the page.
So, yes, as a writer, I want to encourage you to kill your backstory darlings. In revision, train yourself to throw up a mental penalty flag (Wow! A sports metaphor from me!) every time you start talking about the past, or describing a character, or discussing a relationship, etc., etc…for more than a few paragraphs. Maybe for more than two paragraphs. Honestly, maybe for more than two sentences. Cut and…kill.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure those deaths have to be final.
This backstory is development. When you’re writing a first draft, you’re supposed to let things flow. You’re still learning. Heck, I’m on the second draft, and I’m still learning. Oh, wait…picture book….thirteen drafts…sigh. You get the point.
At some point, though, you’re going to get rid of a humongous chunk of backstory.
Here’s the question.
Do you hit the Delete key, or do you pick Cut-and-Paste?
Your choice, obviously, and it’s going to depend a lot on your process and your memory. Me, if I think I’m going to want to use something in the future, I don’t get rid of it. I don’t trust myself to remember what it was, or the absolute brilliance with which I wrote it. (Yes, you’re right. 98.7323% of the time, I look back at it and either don’t need it or the brilliance has completely faded.) But I don’t see a problem with keeping a file of backstory that you’ve taken out of your manuscript.
Your readers do need some information about the characters and the world they’re moving in. It’s a rare novelist, and I can’t name one off the top of my head, who can give the reader everything through dialogue and pure action. As you cut and cut, you’re also going to be trickling.
A line here. A few words there.
Odds are you’re not going to pull the exact wording from that backstory file. But tons of writers use character worksheets, or make collages to represent the settings they want to create. What do you think? Would a backstory file be a good refresher for you, a reminder of all the things you once knew and wrote down about this story? Would this file point you in the right direction to the few words you need now?
Thoughts? Comments? Do you delete, or do you copy?