Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Problem With Backstory

A few weeks ago, in church, I heard a story that was so unexpectedly funny (in church!) that I laughed loudly enough to make those nearest me turn their heads to see who was causing the ruckus.

I couldn't wait to share it with my daughter. So, on our way home, I repeated it practically word for word:
A grandma was babysitting her granddaughter. "Grandma, how old are you?" the little girl asked.
"Oh, honey, when you get to be my age, you don't tell anyone how old you are," Grandma replied.
A little while later, the grandma noticed that her granddaughter was no longer playing in the living room. A quick search of the house revealed the little girl in the grandmother's room, on the grandmother's bed, with the contents of the grandmother's purse spread out, as the little girl intently studied her grandma's driver's license.
"Grandma," said the girl, "you're seventy-three."
"That's right, Dear. How did you find that out?"
"I just looked at your birth date and did the math. And Grandma -- it says here you got an F in Sex."

My 10-year old laughed as hard as I had. But then she stopped. "That's the punchline," she asked. "The point of the story."

Uh-oh, I thought. I nodded.

"So the whole 'how old are you?' lead up was all backstory," Miss Thing said. "It wasn't necessary."

Much as it pained me to admit, she was right. Not only could the story have started with Grandma searching the house for the missing granddaughter, in the interest of time, set-up and payoff, it should have started there.
The story starts with an incident that sets things in motion.

Backstory can introduce the main character. It can set the scene. It can ground the reader in a brave new world. But this is not information that compels the reader to turn the page. This is not even information that the reader needs in the first chapter. As long as backstory reigns, the story can not start.

What is missing in backstory is the Inciting Incident -- the plot point where things start to happen. The question "how old are you" may have been the backstory that set the plot machine in motion. But until the grandma realizes her babysitting charge is missing and goes to find her, the story stays static.
Backstory is just water under the bridge...

If you're in the throes of an edit, consider revisiting the beginning of your project and identifying where the story starts. Find the incident that kicks everything off. The incident will not be backstory. It will not be exposition. It will not be staged drama or contrived conflict. Instead, it will be an event that involves an action that sets the main character or story (depending on whether the project is plot- or character-driven) on a collision course with the ending. THAT is where your story starts.

Find it. Start there. And wave goodbye to everything that happened earlier.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!