Monday, July 3, 2017

Backstory Blues

Copyright © 2017 Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

One thing that drives me nuts as a reader is the overuse of backstory in a novel, especially when the genre is not literary fiction.

What instigated my grumbling at this time is Alex Kava's A Necessary Evil, which I'd read about one-third through. It introduces a number of characters, some of which are detectives or investigators and such, and some are perpetrators. But what I find, in chapter after chapter, is a story crawling at a snail's pace as the author plunges into the character's miserable past or dysfunctional old relationships. For example, the main character, a female FBI agent, must work with a local female detective on a murder. But in the past, the detective had made a pass at the agent, and now their working relationship is strained. Added to that, the detective once saved the agent's mother from suicide. But also, the agent had once rescued the detective's father from a serial killer. Can you say contrived? But that's just the start of boring backstories whose purpose seems mainly to fill page space and give the impression of conflict.

In my opinion, a murder mystery or suspense thriller is about the story, the plot. It's certainly mandatory to create compelling characters in a genre novel, but that can be done by showing their actions and relationships in the now - often through dialog - not by contrived family backgrounds. I'm not against giving a bit of character history, such as explaining how the protagonist became widowed, or how she inherited wealth from her industrialist father. Just weave it naturally into the story - a paragraph here and there - rather than constantly dumping out several paragraphs of the stuff time after time.

And, of course, the worst backstory sin of all: filling Chapter One with it. Arrrgh! Does anything make a reader gag more that that? Yes, sadly. Finding even more in Chapter Two.

I was having lunch with a few writer friends recently, and one author described a novel of his where the plot seemed to rely on a series of implausible character and family relationships that would do any TV soap opera proud. I cringed at the inevitable pages of backstory it must contain to untangle all the mess. And, in the end, would it have any discernable plot?

So, I did not bother finishing the last two-thirds of A Necessary Evil. I found myself skipping over paragraphs whenever a hint of dreaded backstory crept in. It just isn't worth it, wading though all that to try to get back to the actual story.

Many good articles exist online that discuss the evils of backstory done wrong and how to do it better. So I won't attempt to expound on it here. Suffice to say, it's a disease that plagues aspiring writers and experienced, published authors alike.

And please ... don't get me started on flashbacks. But, that's for another time.

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