The Curse of the Backstory

 

by Josh Langston

Of all the story-writing sins committed by beginning writers, by far the worst consists of dumping a trailer-load of backstory on the unsuspecting reader. Fortunately, this error becomes clear almost immediately, at least to the reader.

As an editor, this practice not only makes me cringe, it makes me wonder if the writer has ever actually opened a novel and read it. And by novel, I mean one written by someone with an actual story to tell, who can differentiate between the stuff that interests readers, and the stuff that puts ’em to sleep.

Believe me, it’s easy to tell the difference — just read a bad novel, and God knows there are plenty of them to choose from. Fortunately the worst aren’t in print. As much as I bad mouth the Big Five, the one positive thing I can say about the efforts of the “traditional” agent/editor/publisher/marketing cabal, is that they give a thumbs down to the truly bad along with the potentially good.

I firmly believe most novels submitted to agents, editors and publishers aren’t worthy of being put into print. Most need a significant amount of work just to become readable, and most agents and editors aren’t willing to put in that kind of time. I don’t blame them; it’s work.

I know, because many of those writers come to me for help. I get to see what they’ve done, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why their manuscripts received a “Thanks, but no thanks,” assuming they got any feedback at all. That’s a different rant which I’ll discuss at a later date.

Along comes Amazon, and the old modus operandi is dumped on its head; Amazon made self-publishing not only economically feasible, but relatively easy. Print-on-demand utterly clinched the deal. Suddenly, anyone who could copy and paste their text into a computer-generated template could format an honest-to-God paperback book. The e-book versions were even easier. And as quick as a red neck can learn to say, “Watch this; somebody hold my beer!” crappy books flooded the market.

Please understand, I’m NOT saying all self-published books are crap. Far from it. I’ve published quite a number of them myself, and they’ve been well received. And, I’ve helped dozens of other people to produce books of their own. But they all have a degree of polish that’s often lacking in self-published work. In short, they’ve been edited.

And one of the first things I encourage (nag, berate, argue, comment, filibuster) is the elimination of backstory. If it’s truly worthwhile, it can be sprinkled in as needed. But a wholesale dumping of background material is almost never appropriate. I say “almost” not because I know of a case where it worked, but because I’m sure there’s probably one out there somewhere. I just haven’t seen it yet.

If you’re just starting your writing career, you can save yourself an astonishing amount of grief, to say nothing of time and energy, simply by eliminating every particle of backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary.

Trust me when I say no one cares about Uncle Doober’s bowel issues, or whether or not Gramma Grundy ever used self-rising flour. What we do want to know is how Uncle Doober got elected Mayor and/or how Gramma Grundy eventually poisoned him. That’s where the story is!

That’s what someone, someday, might make into a movie.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Josh Langston. A graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism, Josh’s writing tastes quickly shifted away from reportage. His fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and he currently has two short story collections in the Amazon top 100 for genre fiction.

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15 thoughts on “The Curse of the Backstory”

  1. Wow! I know the world is full of lazy people, but to state it in a blog is detriment to professional suicide. Josh Langston quotes, ‘Most need a significant amount of work just to become readable, and most agents and editors aren’t willing to put in that kind of time. I don’t blame them; it’s work.
    If you can’t be bothered doing the work for writers, may I suggest a career change to a vocation less strenuous.

    Like

  2. You can see some of this in the classics as well. I am not one to diss them but was the whole chapter of cetology really needed in Moby Dick? IMHO, dumping a back story kind of violates the rule of “show don’t tell” or is it something else?

    Like

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