Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Work-In-Progress Wednesday: What I've learned about backstory from watching TV

So, as I mentioned in my latest Teen Fiction Cafe post, I watch a lot of TV. I feel guilty about it sometimes, especially when it cuts into my reading time, but I consider television to be a much better storyteller than it used to be. I barely watched anything in the mid to late 90s, I even spent most of the early 2000s scoffing that it was all reality crap. But then I realized there were some incredibly well-written programs out there. (There is some fun mindless entertainment, too, and I definitely indulge in that because everyone needs to unwind.) Suddenly I found myself more engrossed in TV than movies because I get to enjoy a longer story arc. And even though I spent years riding the whole "TV kills brain cells" train, I've actually found myself learning a ton from my shows lately. It's like a free--or I guess cost of my cable and Netflix subscriptions--education in pacing, character development, dialogue, and more.

Since I love to write nuanced characters, who the reader will either love to hate or will love but be frustrated with at times because they are REAL people living in shades of gray rather than black-and-white and making poor choices at times, those are the kinds of shows I seek out. That's why I love Mad Men and it's a large part of the reason why I've managed to watch two seasons of Sons of Anarchy in less than two weeks. Seriously, I watched half of season three on Sunday alone. It was insane. I spend a lot of time pondering the characters and how the writers make me empathize with people I would normally dislike and keep me going on the roller coaster ride with the characters I do like even when they make one bad choice after the next, but character development is something I'd like to think I'm pretty good at... I have a bunch of tools for it anyway.

On the other hand, my biggest weakness as a writer is backstory. It probably goes hand-in-hand with the character development thing. I know so much about my characters and have fleshed out their history in such a big way that I can't help bringing it into the book. Without fail, every time my critique partners get back to me on a manuscript, they ask if I can somehow trim the backstory. It is the bane of my existence. Not them saying that because they are almost always right, but the trimming. Ugh. Especially with this book because there is so much history, not just for my character but for her entire family.

I noticed a really interesting thing while I was watching Sons of Anarchy though. We were thrust into the lives of these interesting, insane characters in this motorcycle club which obviously has a lot of history. Plenty of hints were dropped about the past, many of which caused me to turn to my husband who has already seen the first four seasons of the show and ask questions. Of course, he'd always shake his head at me and tell me to be patient. (And let me just say that gentle reprimand occurs a lot in our marriage!) So I kept waiting for the flashbacks, like the ones we got in Mad Men as Don Draper's secret history was revealed. But three seasons into the show and I've yet to get a single flashback.

This frustrates me a bit because A. I'm impatient and B. I'm so character history obsessed, but for the most part it leaves me in awe. There is still backstory on Sons of Anarchy, it's a show with rich characters who have a lot of history, but it's only given to us in the moment. We learn about the past through dialogue. The past comes up when it's relevant to show, like when someone's former lover shows up. Still, these are places where I would be tempted as a writer to pause and let my character reflect via flashback, but on SOA they never do. You learn all you are going to learn from what the character's say, write (there are some voice over monologues from Jax's dead father, but we only get those when Jax is reading things his father has written), and from the expressions on their faces, body language, and physical reactions.

And I am fucking jealous.

I don't think I'd be capable of doing this. Definitely not with the book I'm currently working on and the other ideas I have also seem too drenched in character history to pull off something like what SOA does. But one day, dammit. It will be a goal.

For now, I just am going to have to rely on my CPs and a bunch of handy highlighters when I finish a manuscript so I can look at where I've gotten too backstory heavy and how I can trim and redistribute. However, when I can I will be trying to find ways to get history across in a scene/through dialogue. And for those of you who struggle with backstory and are RWA members, do check out the recent Romance Writers Report for an interesting article about how to cope with your oversharing habit.

What about you? Do you have backstory issues or tips for dealing with it? And what TV shows have taught you what kinds of writing tricks?


Jen84 said...

I have to say I also watch way too much tv, mainly Supernatural, NCIS, Gilmore Girls and my cousin and I are currently watching all of Buffy again but I had never really considered it as useful with writing. Next time I watch an episode I will be looking out for helpful things that before I may have missed!
I have the ooposite problem with backstory, I tend to not include enough. Because I know my characters I forget that other people don't and I am yet to find a solution for this...
Thankyou for the tip Stephanie :)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

You are welcome, hope it helps! I'm into Buffy and Supernatural too right now. And the Gilmore Girls was a big inspiration for me last year :)

Adrianne said...

I had someone read a story I've been working on and their critique is that there wasn't enough backstory. It's hard to find a balance. You want to let readers in but you don't want to create so much that they're all, "Why, Hello, Mr. Exposition!"

I'm so late to a lot of scripted TV. I just finished Lost, and Supernatural is next on the list.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Yep, Adrianne, that is so true. It usually takes me until the revision phase to get things right because I need to see the whole story to know where the backstory belongs. Enjoy Supernatural! I'm loving it. I haven't watched Lost, but it's on the list for someday!

Wendy said...

Hey Stephanie!

It's been ages since I've been at your blog. It's cool to know you're making progress with all your projects.

Oddly enough, these last few days, I've been thinking the exact same thing you wrote about in this post. While SoA inspired your thoughts on anti-heroes, I have just begun watching The Shield and that show inspired mine.

The main character on that show is as grey as you can get. He does some really heinous things, but yet you still can't help but root for the guy. Kurt Sutter, the guy who wrote or co-wrote most of the scripts for The Shield is the writer/exec producer of SoA. While he doesn't seem to dispense a lot of writing advice, he's still an interesting guy to follow on Twitter.

I read an article on anti-heroes on TV and how it's a relatively a new thing (supposedly started with The Sopranos).

I can't think of any stand out YA novels that include this kind of character. Granted, teens aren't necessarily running guns, cooking meth, intimidating rival gang members, etc, but I would love to read a YA novel in which the character is likable, but does the cross the line. If any book suggestions come to mind, let me know.