Sunday, 3 August 2014

Backstory: Who do you think you are?

I really enjoy watching the series Who Do You Think You Are? Basically, celebrities go on a journey to trace their ancestors and usually find interesting relatives in their past. As I was watching an episode yesterday, it occurred to me that I was watching a lot of backstory. And the backstory was interesting.

What made the celebrity's backstory interesting to watch and how can we apply it to our writing?

(1) If we love the celebrity, we want to learn everything about them, including their history. What does that mean for writers? Well, if our readers love our characters, they'll be more willing to find out about their past.

(2) Not everything is revealed. I'm sure the amount of information uncovered during the celebrity's journey is immense. The viewer doesn't get all that information. Often what is released is how the ancestor's career choices or family situation matches the celebrity's. What does that mean for the writer? Make the backstory relevant. Only release backstory relevant to the character and the story.

(3) The celebrity travels a lot, and we see their reactions. We are taken to the places the ancestor's lived. We see their houses, their workplaces, their art. Then we see the celebrity's reaction to the revelations. Writers can do the same thing, we can add backstory, but make sure you break it up with present day reactions. 

How do you add backstory?

15 comments:

  1. Great tips for incorporating interesting backstory to our books, Clarissa! Thanks.

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  2. Those are smart tips! Only reveal what is necessary.

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  3. Clarissa - I couldn't agree more about revealing backstory only as needed. Otherwise it's 'information dump.' I usually bring in backstroy a little at a time, as it's relevant to the story. I think it's important to do that without keeping the characters *too* enigmatic.

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  4. Good tips, Clarissa. That's one thing I like about several of the series I follow. With each new installment I learn a little more of the protagonist's backstory and it makes me want to learn more.

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  5. That's another reason why info dumps at the beginning don't work - the reader hasn't had time to fall in love with the characters.

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  6. Piggybacking on what L. Diane mentioned, I've attempted fantasy stories with the beginning info dump but it just doesn't work. It bores the reader and the reader doesn't feel the need or desire to invest in the character.

    I am working on getting better at weaving backstory in through dialogue and moments of internalization.

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  7. Great tips for flashbacks Clarissa!

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  8. Hi Clarissa,

    I add backstory in dribs and drabs, hopefully staying away from drowning the reader in history.

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  9. I enjoy that show too. Good post and advice.

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  10. I've been hearing good things about this show. I'll have to check it out. And great take-aways for writers :)

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

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  11. I sure appreciate writers who weave lots of backstory and details into a work. My interest in history and investigations drive me to find out as much about things as possible--it is great when writers oblige my personal preferences without losing the action in the story.

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  12. I like that show do. Excellent analysis and tips on adding backstory. I give as little as possible, especially at the beginning. Usually this happens naturally because as much as I think I know my characters, I learn so much more as I write.

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  13. What a great equation of the two! And it's true when I end up really liking a character I don't mind that long passage of backstory.

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  14. Hi Clarissa - I find these tv shows fascinating to see how and where their origins came from ... and can quite see what you're doing - also we can be expected to know every little detail about someone else's life ...

    DNA is now playing role - we have a tracing programme using their DNA .. it's interesting as we have no idea about our ancestors where they came from or anything ... a Welsh lady found out she had some Native Indian connections ... how and why - probably traceable in the mists of time ...

    Cheers Hilary

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