As you might remember from my beta reading experiment, my test readers wanted more character development in my novel. Specifically, several beta readers wanted more back story. Now my first reaction to this was skepticism.
"Oh no you DI’N’T,” I said, “I read about back-story on the internets and it’s like the evilest thing evar. It’ll bog your story down, make your readers fall asleep and make your butt look big. In fact, my critique partner added some back story to her WIP before she started querying agents and the next day she DIED.”
But then I realized that I didn’t actually know how much back story appears in your typical YA book. So, as I often do when I have questions about writing, I dug out Graceling and The Hunger Games for some analysis. They are my go-to books for several reasons:
1. So good! Not only did I love them, but they were well received by readers and critics, and both did well commercially.
2. They were published within the last five years (2008, to be exact).
3. They are in my genre (Young adult action-adventure in an alternate world).
I went through and underlined all the back story in the first few chapters. To make things more interesting, I classified back story into three types: exposition, summarized narrative, and detailed narrative.
Exposition is a simple statement of facts. For example, this passage from The Hunger Games.
When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city of the Capital. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts…
A summarized narrative is a story told in a compressed timeline. Like this passage, again from The Hunger Games:
"Hey, Catnip," says Gail.
My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I'd said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn't bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.
A detailed narrative is back story told with the same detail and pacing as the rest of the story. Like this passage from Graceling.
Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Counsel, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time.
"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.
Prince Raffin had been offended. "You'd doubt my medicine. They won't wake."
"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded.
"I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, she held up her hand. "Enough. I won't kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else.”
So here's what the first three chapters for Graceling look like. Blue is everything in the present time. Exposition is red, summarized narrative is orange, and detailed backstory is yellow. Every unit on the x-axis is roughly a page, although they don’t match the page numbers exactly because I made this graph by counting lines and didn’t take into account page breaks at the end of chapters.
Here is a more detailed listing of the backstory sections. The story starts on page 3, and the main narrative describes Katsa on a mission to rescue a prisoner named Grandfather Tealiff.
p.3 Start of story – Katsa in the dungeons.
p.7 One paragraph summarizing how she had set off for the dungeons this morning. Narrative then spends 2 paragraphs in the present, and then there are several paragraphs of detailed flashback describing the planning session for this dungeon raid (this is the example quoted above).
p.9-11 Three pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katsa’s childhood, how she discovered her ability to kill, and her training.
p.17-19 Three pages of exposition on the history of the seven kingdoms and the kidnapping of Grandfather Tealiff.
p.27 One paragraph of exposition about why Katsa started the Council that organized this rescue.
p.28-32 Four pages of summarized narrative continuing the story of Katsa's childhood, starting from where the story left off on page 11. Tells of how she started to work for her uncle as a thug, and how the resulting guilt spurred her to form the Council.
So what does The Hunger Games look like? Same color scheme.
The story starts on page 3. These opening chapters begin with Katniss waking up and going hunting with Gale. Then the town gathers for the Hunger Games lottery, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the deadly Hunger Games.
p.3 Story starts – Katniss wakes up. After she sees their cat, one paragraph of summarized narrative about how they found the cat.
p.5 One sentence about how Katniss’s father died.
p.6 One paragraph of exposition about how Katniss learn to hold her tongue about the government. (First example quoted above.)
p.7 One paragraph summarized narrative about how Katniss got the nickname Catnip. (Second example quoted above.)
p.8 One paragraph exposition about how Katniss’ parents met.
p.9 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss met Gale.
p.13 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss had to take extra entries into the Hunger Games lottery in return for food rations from the government.
p.14 One paragraph exposition on how Gale feels about the Hunger Games and the government.
p.15 One sentence on Katniss’s early relationship with her mother.
p.18 One paragraph on the history of their country and the Hunger Games, delivered as the mayor's speech.
p.21 One paragraph detailed narrative about a hunting experience.
p.23 One sentence about Katniss’ father's death.
p.26-32 Six and a half pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katniss' backstory with Peeta, the male protagonist.
So what did I learn from this analysis? Well, I think the most can be learned just by getting a feel for how the narratives are structured. I can draw a few generalizations:
1. I shouldn't be so scared of backstory. Both Suzanne Collins and Kristen Cashore include at least one extended chunk of backstory early on in the book. I suspect that the rise of in media res beginnings make backstory even more important.
2. There's more than one way to do it. Kristin Cashore uses larger chunks of backstory, while Suzanne Collins sprinkles in a paragraph here and there, with the exception of one long flashback (There's another one several chapters later that I didn't include, which is a continuation of the Peeta flashback). As a reader, both styles worked for me, with the exception of the three-page exposition in Graceling on the history of the seven kingdoms, which I remember skipping.
3. In particular, I appreciate how a short summarized story can add color and flavor to the text. For example, the Catnip story quoted above. I like how Suzanne Collins sprinkled in little stories throughout, and I wonder if there is something about a present tense first-person narrative that makes it easier to include small, short, flashbacks. From a purely technical standpoint, you don't have to worry about all that past perfect verb conjugation. And I wonder if being so present in someone's head gives you more permission to go on tangents.
4. I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or not, but both authors broke their most extended flashback (Katsa's childhood and Katniss and Peeta's story) into two halves of roughly 4 pages each. Is there a natural upper bound for flashback length?
Of course, simply looking at how much backstory there is isn't enough. Backstory has to be done well. So here's the question I will pose for you, dear readers. What are the characteristics of skillfully incorporated back story?
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