Backstory: How Robin Brande’s DOGGIRL Got Me Thinking
I’ve talked plenty about backstory here, including this recent post. The thing to remember is that, while we don’t want to put a ton of unnecessary backstory in our manuscripts, we still need to know and understand what that backstory is.
Especially the backstory for our heroes.
Backstory in my YA historical has been a particular challenge, because I’m working hard to show (NOT tell!) the impact Caro’s mother has on her (Caro’s) present life. Bad things happened to her mother, bad things contributed to the person she is, to the mother she is…and that’s a big part of what Caro is fighting against. One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is how much of her mother’s backstory Caro actually knows, at the beginning of the story, and what she has to find out along the way. I’ve been hunting for the right place to have the “reveal” happen–if there is to be one. And, along the way, there’s been another, different backstory idea poking at me, trying to get me to listen.
I’ve read and loved both of Robin’s previous books—Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature and Fat Cat. Doggirl did not disappoint. It’s a wonderful story about Riley Case, a girl who has always felt more comfortable around animals (particularly dogs) than she does around people. Riley’s dream is to train dogs for the movies, and she gets a chance to put those dreams into action when the school’s theater group needs a dog trainer (“Must provide OWN DOG”).
The story is wonderfully written. The theater group is participating in the annual Thirteen-Day-Theater Trash, a crazy-making whirlwind of writing, directing, and acting in a play, the performance of which must be filmed and submitted for competition. The drama kids are wonderful, from the wonderfully bossy director to the fantastic costume “department” of one. Quirkiness rules, and Riley struggles with finding a place where she finally fits in and needing to back away from that place before it turns into another disaster.
There’s the backstory. No spoilers, but something happened to Riley, something to do with her connection with animals and the cruelty that humans can be. Something bad enough that her parents chose to uproot the whole family and move them to a new place, giving Riley a fresh start. In other words–and here’s the part that got me thinking–the backstory, the truly important backstory of Doggirl belongs to Riley.
Not to her mother.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
Yes, when you’re in a puzzle about your own book, sometimes you do start seeing solutions everywhere. But, honestly, I think there’s something here to help me learn and to help me perhaps make my own book stronger. Brande does an absolutely wonderful job of trickling the backstory in, giving us just enough information that we are never confused and wandering about whatever it was that did happen, but tantalizing us enough to create that little anxiety in our stomachs: What did happen? How bad was it? Will Riley be able to take this fresh start and move forward, after all the pain from that other…thing?
Brande makes us care. Yes, definitely from her skill, but also because–it’s about Riley. Riley is the one who was hurt in the past. Riley is the one that has made some choices about how she’s going to live from now on. Riley is the one who’s being pushed to reconsider those choices. Riley is the one who risks more pain.
Sure, Riley’s parents are affected. They’re kind, supportive, and real. They hurt for their daughter in the past, they made a strong, active choice about how to help her, and they worry about how she’s doing now.
But the pain, the struggle, the choices—they’re Riley’s.
Now I’m not saying that doing it the other way–having a story in which someone else’s painful history seriously impacts the hero–can’t work. I’ve read books in which that happens, and I’ve seen that choice work beautifully.
That other backstory idea that’s been hanging around my WIP? That one that’s been doing a “Hermoine”–jumping up and down, waving its hand, trying desperately to get my attention?
Yes, it’s tied to her mother’s history. It involves her mother, in a big way. But it specifically, directly, and harshly hit Caro.
Now don’t think I’ve found an immediate, clean, easy solution to my own struggle with how to deal with this backstory. In some ways, it’s gotten more complicated, because it’s bringing up more questions about how much Caro knows, when she found out about it, what choices she is making now…and why. But there’s a glimmer that’s coming along with all that complication–and that’s the feeling that I may have found something stronger, something that…yes, will make my reader care.