Backplots

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Following the last post, I thought I’d do a quick thing on backplots. General wisdom advises that you start your story as near to the action as possible, meaning that a lot of the character/world history has to be gone back to later, but managing the inclusion of backplot can be a real pain in the proverbial. One of the biggest issues is that it massively impacts pacing. You want to maintain the momentum of the story, keeping things moving forward at all times, keeping the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. Going back in time naturally slows the pacing down and you need to be careful not to lose all your carefully built up momentum in one flashback.

The approach recommended by the writing course I was recently on is ‘less is more’. Eliminate all backstory except what the reader absolutely NEEDS to know in order to understand what’s going on currently. That may mean not including some character elements that you know happened, but it’s all part of the iceberg approach to writing – the world and information built up behind the page is greater than what actually makes it onto paper. To be honest, I’m not wholly convinced by such a stringent approach to backstory. Some of my favourite books have been great in part because the world is so deep – Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of balance, where non-essential bits of world history are alluded to but not gone into in detail.

Regardless of how much or how little you include, getting the pacing right is key. Flashbacks are tricky because you actually reverse the direction of the story. They can work but it takes skill. Personally, I prefer to avoid them and stick to delivering it via dialogue or ‘real-time’ reveals like letters, exposition, etc. You can’t give it all at once, though. Just like subplots, it has to be dribbled out in small, regular dollops and preferably only when it’s actively needed to further the story.

If you want to get really technical about terms, backplot can be called external analepsis – going back to story elements prior to the start of the narrative. There’s also internal analepsis, which is going back to an earlier point within the narrative. That’s a very different technique and, whilst it still impacts the pacing, it’s a bit less of an issue. Usually that’s because it’s used to brings pieces of the plot together, so it does actually move things forward. By contrast, backplot explains but doesn’t usually advance the story.

A quick note on moving time forward before I finish. Be very careful about lazy words such as ‘later’, ‘next day’ or ‘the following week’, and of introductory montage paragraphs to cover what happened during the skipped time. If possible, go straight to the scene. If it’s interesting, write it fully; if it isn’t, don’t write it at all. Clean breaks are better. Also, try to condense the timeline of the story as much as possible. More time pressure means more tension and drama.

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3 responses »

  1. The approach to this I like best is the gradual reveal, where the author starts with a brief fleeting reference in a piece of dialogue or description and builds up to revealing more details. If done well it piques my interest, enriches the world and makes the later delivery of backstory feel natural.

  2. Pingback: The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay | Andrew Knighton writes

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