Showing posts with label backstory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label backstory. Show all posts

21 July 2018

Full Disclosure



by John M. Floyd



One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."


Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.


True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:



"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.



One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!







28 August 2012

Ellery Queen's Backstory


by Dale C. Andrews


    Two weeks ago I received one of those emails that everyone at SleuthSayers hopes for when their computer goes “Bing!”  The email was from Janet Hutchings accepting my latest story, Literally Dead, for publication in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

    The time period between a story’s acceptance and its publication – measured in months, usually measured in many, many, months – always reminds me of what it felt like as a child waiting for Christmas.  You know it’s coming and there is great joy in the anticipation.  Part of that also is because at that stage you know you have made it.  You came up with an idea, tinkered with it until you were pretty sure it would work, fleshed out the characters in your mind, drafted, edited, re-edited, circulated it to those around you and finally took a deep breath and sent it off.  And Lo:  It wasn’t rejected.

    When my younger son Colin (one of my tougher critics) read Literally Dead his first observation was that he was surprised at the detail I went into concerning the New England town that is the setting for the story.  Why, he asked, did I explain that the town square was in fact round?   Why did I mention the nearby Mahogany mountain range, or the fact that the next town down the road was Shinn Corners?  And why was it necessary to mention that the statute in the middle of the square (err, the round square) was the town’s founder, Jezreel Wright?  Colin knew that most of my short stories are, in fact, Ellery Queen pastiches.  But Colin (alas, like many of his generation) had not in fact read Queen.  So he did not know about Wrightsville.
Wrightsville -- As depicted on the inside coverplate of Double, Double

   If you have read Ellery Queen you will be very familiar with Wrightsville, the small upstate New York town that was created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee back in the 1940s to get Ellery out of the city on occasion.  The Wrightsville mysteries begin with Calamity Town, published in 1942, and thereafter the little town with its recurring characters is the focal backdrop for a host of Queen mysteries, all the way through the penultimate Queen novel The Last Woman in his Life, published in 1970. 

    During the almost 30 years that we see the town through Ellery’s eyes we watch it change.  Characters come and go; Police Chief Akins retires, only to be replaced by the flinty Anselm Newby, with whom Ellery will spar in “Literally Dead.”  In the Queen retrospective portion of Tragedy of Errors Richard and Stephen Dannay, sons of Frederic, have noted that the town itself was inspired by the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology.   One episode of the NBC Ellery Queen series was situated in Wrightsville, and Ed Hoch also chose the New England village for his final Ellery Queen pastiche, The Wrightsville Carnival (EQMM September/October 2005).  So I was not the first interloper to return to the town in search of the further adventures of Ellery.

    One of the more difficult tasks in writing an Ellery Queen story is dealing with the backstory that defines Ellery.  In all of the Ellery Queen stories there are virtually no descriptions of Ellery himself.  But boy, there sure is a lot of other background for a writer of pastiches to grapple with.  Some of the Queen backstory is easy – Wrightsville either stays the same or grows along predictable lines.  But Not so Mr. Queen himself.

    The Ellery Queen we first meet in The Roman Hat Mystery, published in 1929, is young, foppish, and at times rather insufferable.  He wears pince-nez glasses, carries a cane, tools around in a Dusenberg, and spouts erudite but hopelessly obscure references from the classics.  We are told by the mysterious “J.J. McC”, who provided the introductions to the early Queen novels, that Ellery eventually retired with his wife and son in Italy.  (By the way, anyone paying careful attention when reading Queen’s Face to Face, published decades later in 1967, can stumble upon the true identity of Mr. J.J. McC!) 

    In any event, all of this early Queen backstory changes abruptly and radically half way through the Queen library.  From the appropriately-named Halfway House, published in 1936, on Ellery, morphs into a young middle age man, and takes on a more vulnerable and likeable character.  He ditches the pince-nez and cane and discovers self-doubt.  The spouse, the son and the idyllic life in Northern Italy disappear like fingerprint dustings in the wind.  So unlike the previous Ellery is this incantation that the late Julian Symons, in his omnibus The Great Detectives, speculates that the Ellery of the second half of the series was in fact the son of the Ellery of the first half, a theory that Frederic Dannay scoffed at when he met with Symons at Dannay’s home in Larchmont, New York.

    In any event, having brought about this phoenix-like change, Ellery proceeds to stay basically exactly the same for the next thirty-five years.  This is true of Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, as well, who is almost always nearing retirement, but never getting there.  I had to say “almost” and “basically” because there are still rents in the Queen backstory fabric.  Thus, the Inspector does retire in Inspector Queen’s Own Case, published in 1956, the same volume in which he becomes engaged to Jessie Sherwood.  Further confusion ensues, however.  By The Player on the Other Side, published in 1963, the Inspector is not retired, and Jessie is nowhere to be seen.  And then in The House of Brass, published in 1968, Jessie is back, and Richard Queen is (again) retired.  Thereafter in the final books of the series – The Last Woman in his Life, (1970), and A Fine and Private Place, (1971) Richard Queen is back at work and, again, Jessie has disappeared like that pair of pince-nez.

    Which brings us back to Ellery,  As noted, from around 1936 on he is portrayed uniformly, and in fact appears almost not to age at all.  But with one notable exception:  The Finishing Stroke.  That mystery, (probably my favorite Queen novel) was published in 1958, and was reportedly planned as the final Ellery Queen mystery.  The story opens in 1905, jumps to 1929, where we find a slightly re-invented version of the early Ellery, and ends in then present-day 1958, where Ellery is portrayed as a man in his early 50s.  In fact we are explicitly told in The Finishing Stroke that Ellery was born in 1905 (the same year that both Dannay and Lee were born).  But after the careful construction of this backstory in The Finishing Stroke, the rug is again pulled out from under us:  With the exception of And on the Eighth Day, a 1964 throwback novel featuring a young Ellery, complete with his Dusenberg, set in 1942, all of the remaining Ellery Queen novels feature Ellery as a young man, in the year the novels were published. 

    My philosophy in writing pastiches, as I have mentioned before, is the same as the physician’s charge:  “first, do no harm.”  I think that if you are going to attempt to bring back the creation of others you must be as loyal as possible to the original.  But still, with Ellery, as we have seen, there are choices.  An author  attempting to recapture Ellery in a new story has some varying paths that can be followed.  Many Ellery Queen pastiches basically follow the majority of the works of Dannay and Lee and portray Ellery as a young man in a present-day world. This is how Ed Hoch and Jon Breen, for example, chose to portray Ellery in pastiches that they wrote.

The Mad Hatter's Riddle as illustrated in EQMM Sept./Oct. 2009
    Perhaps because The Finishing Stroke is a personal favorite, I have always followed the strictures of its time-line and have therefore set a course different from that of the majority of the Queen mysteries.  Thus, in my Ellery Queen pastiches Ellery has always been born in 1905, and is portrayed in any given time at the correct age.  Ellery therefore was 102 when he solved the mystery of the double murder in The Book Case, and he was 70 when the NBC Ellery Queen series was being filmed and the The Mad Hatter’s Riddle took place.  Ellery’s age is a little more difficult to discern in the upcoming Literally Dead, but those paying close attention should be able to approximate it from at least one clue in the story.

    But, in any event, when you set yourself the task of writing a Queen story this is the type of baggage that comes along with the project.  Some years back Leigh Lundin commented to me that the great thing for about writing new Ellery Queen stories was the fact that the detective came with a pre-packaged backstory.  Perhaps you will understand why my response was laughter.