Wednesday, October 08, 2008

looking in the rearview mirror

More on backstory and its influence on pace, tension and potential to undermine forward momentum. And it's tendency to plummet the writer into the morass of back-to-scratch. Chutes and ladders. Sigh.

Often, backstory is an interruption. In a novel, you want to hurtle your reader to the next revelation, the next plot point. The vertical elements of story (i.e. the emotional motivations, the depth of character, the reasons behind the reasons and the endless capacity for "big voice" to steal the show), must be apportioned with a judicious hand and an ear for ruthless exclusion.

I say this as someone guilty of the overshare when it comes to my characters' ruminations. And also as a reader who loves knowing too much. Love it. It indulges the voyeur in me, the girl who longs to massage her insecurities and alignment with all that is broken. But, what I've discovered in the writing of some thousands of pages of unsellable fiction, is that more than wanting to relate to character, a reader wants to get on a rocket ship and not realize they've left earth until the new galaxy is in sight. The continual projection of earth in the rearview undermines this.

That said, backstory is essential for the writer. The writer MUST know where earth is in order to program the gps to the new galaxy. The craft comes in when deciding how much of it to put on the page. Right now, with STL, I'm having a backstory orgy. It's the water cooler gossip of my mind is what it is. Here's a little eruption that found its way to a third draft of a particular chapter 50 or so pages back from the leading edge of the project:

The plates gleamed back at me from the drying rack. I grew up washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen. It's one thing I do quite well. In medical school, I kept a tidy lab. I still do. But there was that small period, the year after Sheldon's first divorce, Tess's first seizure, Dottie's first nitrous overdose, Collin's first six figure income, Cherry's first suicide attempt, Morgan's first grow room bust and my father's first liver transplant, that I went a little crazy. That was the year I met my husband, Arthur Collier.

Who knew? And what good is all this? The question I have to ask myself, in deciding whether this is backstory for the reader or merely scaffolding, is: does any of this information help shape that new galaxy where we're headed? Does it inform what's happening in the "now" or the "soon to be" of the novel? Or, the hardest question: am I cheating? Am I weaving in titillating facts without offering a scene in order to buy shock value or slap the reader with a little "told ya this family is fucked up"?

If this stuff is for reader and not just for writer, then I'll have to unpack it at some point, probably fairly soon. At any rate, I'm happy I know this stuff. It makes me feel much closer to that control freak character of mine.

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