January 13, 2012

The Right Amount of Backstory

Last night I finished MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer, a fascinating novel that deals with issues of violence and guilt and faith. And features a very sweet dog.

Near the beginning of the story, the main character commits an unintended but horrific crime, and most of the rest of the book is about what happens to him and his family afterwards. Occasional sections focus on a different set of characters involved in the investigation of the crime. What most stood out to me about the book was the richly detailed backstories that Spencer gives to every character in the novel.

After I read IF SONS, THEN HEIRS by Lorene Cary, I wrote about how I was impressed that the book included a level of nonessential detail that I would have expected to distract from the story but instead enriched it. Similarly, MAN IN THE WOODS presents many details and events from the pasts of even minor characters that provide no necessary plot information and don't obviously illuminate any specific character trait that needs to be set up. My own editing tendencies would have been to cut most of these out, but in fact I didn't find any of them boring or distracting as I read, and they increased the realness of the characters and their community.

For example, the main character's family is acquainted with, and doesn't particularly like, another family in their small town. This irritating family gets about five small appearances or mentions in the course of the novel, but they could be removed from the story with no impact on the plot. I like that they're in there because it makes the world rich and real: in life, we deal with not only the people we care about and the people who create our main conflicts, but also plenty of people who cause minor annoyances. The characters in the family aren't caricatures but are sketched out in depth, with a whole constellation of traits to bother the protagonist.

Early in the novel's other storyline, involving the detective investigating the crime, the detective meets with a landlord who has some information. In this scene, Spencer lets us into the thoughts of both men, and we see that both of them are seriously distracted from the conversation by a personal problem. The landlord is uncomfortable because he's spotted a man he had a one-night-stand with a year ago, and the detective is struggling to overcome his binge eating habits. I was amazed by the amount of attention given to the inner conflicts in this scene, especially because the landlord never appears in the novel again and the cop's eating disorder doesn't turn out to have any bearing on the plot. But these problems greatly increase the tension of a scene that's otherwise just a transfer of information, and it works.

MAN IN THE WOODS made me think more about my recent musings on giving backstories to secondary characters, and I'm realizing that I can dare to reveal even more detail about my characters' pasts.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Anna Solomon explains Why Princesses Really Drive Me Crazy: "For me, resolution isn't about neatness, or even closure, it's about resonance: the ending of a story has to make everything that came before it ring. Princess story endings seem to deny everything that came before them: whew, that was awful, let’s just forget it ever happened, shall we?"

→ Alex George charts the evolution of his novel from first draft to publication in A Story in Five Photos. (Thanks, Christopher Gronlund!)

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