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Thread: Backstory: what's so bad about it?

  1. #1
    Who wants a cup of tea? HFgal's Avatar
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    Backstory: what's so bad about it?

    I'm so confused on this issue, and I think it's because as a reader, I think I really like backstory - assuming I am correctly identifying it.

    Here is a story I made up five minutes ago which is an analog (in structure only) to my MS story, just so I don't get bogged down in my own beloved MS details:

    Prologue: a nun is in the ceremony where she officially becomes a nun (I don't even know the name of this, not ordained, that's a priest, but whatever). During the ceremony, the police bust in and take her away in handcuffs.

    OK, as a reader, I'm hooked.

    First chapter. Same woman but flash back to some period not too long ago in the past. She's a prostitute staring at the cracks in the ceiling while a john is finishing up. OK, now I'm even more interested. How can this be the same person? As she lies there, she thinks back to her childhood when she first wanted to be a nun [backstory]. Not for too long, maybe a page. Back to the present, the john is done. Sad present-time details are in sharp contrast to what we just read about the childhood. John pays up, end of chapter.

    Second chapter and beyond. Stuff happens to our prostitute, but while that stuff happens we also learn about how she actually came to be a prostitute from that girl that wanted to be a nun. Gets pregnant, tossed out of the house, those kinds of details. Some of that might be communicated in dialogue she is having in the present time, but some might be remembering back to getting tossed out of the house, and a scene describing that [backstory]. But it doesn't take over, it's not too long. Mostly the movement is from being a prostitute in present time to becoming a nun - catching up to the arrest, which let's say we are all caught up to the time of the arrest by the middle of the book. Then the rest of the book is her imprisonment/trial/love affair with the warden/whatever.

    Assume that the facts of the story are set in stone, that the story in chronological sequence is: girl wants to be nun, girl becomes teenager and gets pg, pg teenager becomes prostitute, prostitute becomes nun, nun is arrested, nun is on trial etc.

    In the way that I have set up the chapters, tell me why the backstory is bad. And tell me how you would structure this story if you don't agree with the structure.

  2. #2
    here and there again fadeaccompli's Avatar
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    In the way you've set up the chapters, the actual story is all that flashback stuff. You're just starting out at the end, and then telling it in retrospect, not in perfect chronological sequence. WHich is not an unusual story-telling technique, though not all readers like it.

    The problem with backstory is when you spend the first five chapters on "little girl wants to be a nun" if the story is actually about the prostitution part of her life. If your novel is actually about "Prostitute becomes nun," talking about the prostitute parts of her life IS the story. If your novel is actually about "Nun with shady past does interesting nun things," then the prostitution part would be backstory.

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    crazy mean SuperModerator Old Hack's Avatar
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    This doesn't really belong in Ask The Agent. I'll port it to Basic Writing Questions where you'll probably get a better response.

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    I'm already a real writer. Katrina S. Forest's Avatar
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    The problem with this story as you've described it, for me, is that you basically pulled a bait and switch. I read chapter 2 to find out why she got arrested and I get some other story of her life. I might continue for a bit, but I'd be annoyed. It's very unlikely I would stick with it for half the novel. It's not just the flashbacks to her childhood that are backstory. If you start with the arrest and don't return to it until halfway through, half the book is basically backstory.

    Now, some writers can make this work with the arrest scene being a prologue of some kind, which lets the audience know we're not going to see this again for a while. But IMHO, that's no easy feat to pull off without sounding gimmicky.
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  5. #5
    Who wants a cup of tea? HFgal's Avatar
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    Old Hack, thank you for porting this. Right after I hit the submit button, it occurred to me that this wasn't really Ask The Agent... (and does that kitten on your butt ever run out of ammo? )

    Quote Originally Posted by Katrina S. Forest View Post
    The problem with this story as you've described it, for me, is that you basically pulled a bait and switch. I read chapter 2 to find out why she got arrested and I get some other story of her life. I might continue for a bit, but I'd be annoyed. It's very unlikely I would stick with it for half the novel. It's not just the flashbacks to her childhood that are backstory. If you start with the arrest and don't return to it until halfway through, half the book is basically backstory.

    Now, some writers can make this work with the arrest scene being a prologue of some kind, which lets the audience know we're not going to see this again for a while. But IMHO, that's no easy feat to pull off without sounding gimmicky.
    Katrina, The arrest was in the prologue in my example.

    For anyone: Is there a difference between "flashback" scenes and "backstory" scenes? Just want to understand my terminology.

    So to try to generalize, backstory is bad because it annoys people with details they aren't interested in at the moment, because at that moment they are interested in what is going on in the present time?

    One of the themes in my book, and something I am interested in in literature and in real life, is how people become "bad". In real life, there are hundreds of thousands of prostitutes (maybe millions - I never counted) who are unhappy as to where they ended up (and not that my book is about prostitutes, but it's an example). I refuse to believe that they were all bad seeds, nature over nurture. I always want to know, how did someone get to this sad place (jail, brothel, rehab), and that, for me, always includes some formative stuff that happened in childhood. But if the story starts in childhood, it's boring, because there are only snippets of the childhood that are relevant. So that's the kind of backstory I like to read, and I think that's the kind of backstory I have in my MS - the kind that is brief but gives important insight into why the MC is doing the things they are doing in the present time, or why they are the way they are in the present time.

    But I have more than a sneaking suspicion that I will get agent feedback that will include the word "backstory". And not in a good way.

  6. #6
    Huh. kkbe's Avatar
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    ETA: We cross-posted, sorry about that. To address your comments, re:
    One of the themes in my book, and something I am interested in in literature and in real life, is how people become "bad". . . I think that's the kind of backstory I have in my MS - the kind that is brief but gives important insight into why the MC is doing the things they are doing in the present time, or why they are the way they are in the present time.
    It isn't limited to that, though. Our history generally defines us. Things happen that pivot us in one direction over another. Big and small moments shape our fates. How people become "good" or "bad" or "indifferent" is a question without a singular answer.

    I see no problem with presenting brief, important insights. To address your original post comment: I think any kind of structure can work if the writer is savvy enough. I don't consider backstory necessarily wrong, but there's a right way and wrong way to use it effectively. (This might be helpful: http://storysensei.blogspot.com/2005/08/how-to-write-backstory-without-putting.html)

    Backstory is your character's history. It speaks to motivation. It shapes what your character thinks, says, does, is. It makes your character real.

    I think fade raised some salient points relative to your example so I won't belabor those. Instead, I add this: backstory can be an effective story-telling device, but it's greatest value isn't in the story, I don't think--it's in the knowledge that you, the writer, have of your character's history.

    You need to know that history to fully develop your character and guide her actions, thoughts, motivations, etc., so this complex person you've created comes across as authentic and consistently believeable to your readers. Your character reflects that every day, in countless ways, consistently, on every page. It's what makes her who she is. You can show that via your character's actions and reactions, thoughts, feelings, etc. You needn't limit it to what you're calling "backstory." I don't think you should.
    Last edited by kkbe; 01-16-2013 at 01:04 AM. Reason: missed a word
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    Writing Anarchist DeleyanLee's Avatar
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    The structure you're talking about has a hook into a framing story, then backtracks (which always happens with a framing story), then flashbacks within that backtrack, then rejoins the framing story which then continues on. Not an uncommon structure. Backstory isn't a structure thing (whole book). Backstory is a narrative thing (word presentation). It's probably why you're confused.

    Backstory: background information about a character, situation or world that's important for the author to know in order to write the book, but the reader usually isn't interested in. These are the little things that explain the whys and wherefores of how things are that are boring when explained to the reader.

    They are boring because all the conflict and drama are settled. There are no story questions being asked. It's just an explanation, aka: My arm is in a cast because I broke it in 17 pieces while skiing last week. Straight foreward and boring.

    Flashback: The active dramatization of some point of time that is directly influencing the current storyline, which includes conflict and story questions.

    IE: Someone asks about the broken arm (in the previous top-of-the-head example) and the character flashes back to the thrill of their first Big Diamond ski course, the moment they realized they were out of control, and how they desperately tried to correct and failed, topped off with a flippant comment when brought back to the present storyline.

    The big difference is that one can be dramatized, have story questions/conflicts and be interesting/entertaining, and the other is simple statements and not dramatized well.
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    practical experience, FTW Sunflowerrei's Avatar
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    Flashbacks are scenes that take place in the past. Backstory are facts--the character's biography, medical history, the history of the house, etc. Backstory can be revealed in flashbacks.

    But if you begin with scenes in the past, it's not a flashback. It's part of the narrative.

    In my WIP, I gave my MC backstory. Some of it figures into the conflicts he has during the actual action of the story--he's estranged from his parents and he has two kids with different women. This stuff isn't played out in flashbacks. It comes out in dialogue and narrative.
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  9. #9
    practical experience, FTW mayqueen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kkbe View Post
    I see no problem with presenting brief, important insights. ...

    Backstory is your character's history. It speaks to motivation. It shapes what your character thinks, says, does, is. It makes your character real.

    I think fade raised some salient points relative to your example so I won't belabor those. Instead, I add this: backstory can be an effective story-telling device, but it's greatest value isn't in the story, I don't think--it's in the knowledge that you, the writer, have of your character's history.

    You need to know that history to fully develop your character and guide her actions, thoughts, motivations, etc., so this complex person you've created comes across as authentic and consistently believeable to your readers. Your character reflects that every day, in countless ways, consistently, on every page. It's what makes her who she is. You can show that via your character's actions and reactions, thoughts, feelings, etc. You needn't limit it what you're calling "backstory." I don't think you should.
    I totally agree with this. It seems like in your example, as has been said, the story is how the woman journeyed to become a nun. If the story went on to be about, say, how she becomes a nun running an evil asylum (I'm sorry, I had to channel American Horror Story), I'd feel annoyed as a reader about all of that character exposition that didn't need to be there. If it isn't central, absolutely central, to understanding the conflict your character faces, you don't need it in the story. You do need it, as kkbe, said to understand your character. I really enjoy novels that seem like snippets, like a character in a time or place dealing with something. I don't need to know everything about that character's back story if I feel like the character is a real person I could hang out with.

    It's a lot like info-dumping, the bane of the historical writer. You need to know everything about the social, political, and economic setting of your story, but your reader doesn't need it spoon-fed.

    So, back story isn't bad, as long as you don't overwhelm your story with it. It's back story, not story story.
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    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HFgal View Post


    For anyone: Is there a difference between "flashback" scenes and "backstory" scenes?
    A flashback is backstory presented as a real-time scene. Otherwise, backstory is summarized or alluded to.

    So to try to generalize, backstory is bad because it annoys people with details they aren't interested in at the moment, because at that moment they are interested in what is going on in the present time?
    Pretty much. Use backstory to illuminate present story, but take time to develop the present story first.

    As to the structure of your novel, what Fadeaccompli said is spot on. It all depends on what the story is about.


    But I have more than a sneaking suspicion that I will get agent feedback that will include the word "backstory". And not in a good way.
    Possibly. Probably. I would think a gradual revelation of her past would work better than dumping it all in at once.

  11. #11
    Do Not Walk on the Grass Emily Winslow's Avatar
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    I just want to say that I adore backstory too. I just love it. Has to be done well, has to MATTER, has to be in just the right place... A lot can go wrong. But when it goes right, it's just so GOOD.


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    By any other name... RedRose's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HFgal View Post
    I'm so confused on this issue, and I think it's because as a reader, I think I really like backstory - assuming I am correctly identifying it.

    Here is a story I made up five minutes ago which is an analog (in structure only) to my MS story, just so I don't get bogged down in my own beloved MS details:

    Prologue: a nun is in the ceremony where she officially becomes a nun (I don't even know the name of this, not ordained, that's a priest, but whatever). During the ceremony, the police bust in and take her away in handcuffs.

    OK, as a reader, I'm hooked.

    First chapter. Same woman but flash back to some period not too long ago in the past. She's a prostitute staring at the cracks in the ceiling while a john is finishing up. OK, now I'm even more interested. How can this be the same person? As she lies there, she thinks back to her childhood when she first wanted to be a nun [backstory] [This backstory contains tension. A problem with a lot of backstory is that it is an immediate stop to the conflict which decreases interest. If you can add a bit of backstory and show how this adds even more conflict for the MC without overwriting it....Donald Maass talks on this.] . Not for too long, maybe a page. Back to the present, the john is done. Sad present-time details are in sharp contrast to what we just read about the childhood. John pays up, end of chapter.

    Second chapter and beyond. Stuff happens to our prostitute, but while that stuff happens we also learn about how she actually came to be a prostitute from that girl that wanted to be a nun. Gets pregnant, tossed out of the house, those kinds of details. Some of that might be communicated in dialogue she is having in the present time, but some might be remembering back to getting tossed out of the house, and a scene describing that [backstory]. But it doesn't take over, it's not too long. Mostly the movement is from being a prostitute in present time to becoming a nun - catching up to the arrest, which let's say we are all caught up to the time of the arrest by the middle of the book. Then the rest of the book is her imprisonment/trial/love affair with the warden/whatever.

    [Good backstory is not easy to accomplish.]

    Assume that the facts of the story are set in stone, that the story in chronological sequence is: girl wants to be nun, girl becomes teenager and gets pg, pg teenager becomes prostitute, prostitute becomes nun, nun is arrested, nun is on trial etc.

    In the way that I have set up the chapters, tell me why the backstory is bad. And tell me how you would structure this story if you don't agree with the structure.
    Just make sure that the backstory doesn't stop the conflict, but rather builds on it. Remember readers likes forward progress in a story otherwise you've started it in the wrong place.

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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    I'm not sure if you mean this wrt writing in general and novels or my query about the boys.

    If it's about the query, it shouldn't have backstory, because it has limited room and should be the entree, to show the agent how well you can cook. It should get him or her interested enough to order up a full meal.

    If it's writing in general, some backstory is ok, as explained well above. A lot of backstory though, is boring and you don't actually like it. In the nun thing, that's the story - how she came to be there. Backstory would be about things in her life that don't really have to do with that but maybe tangentially have to do with her.

    To keep my fantastic food metaphor that I just now invented, the story is the menu and how you created the dishes. You might include a bit of 'this stew is based on the recipe my great-grandmother brought over from Ireland 120 years ago,' yada yada. This is the story and perhaps some interesting backstory.

    Backstory no one needs is if, out in the dining room, going over the menu to your guests, you start on about having bought your Cuisinart, that you used to chop the onions. at Macy's, because they had this sale, and the salesperson thought they had only the Kitchenaid but... No one cares and you're boring people. It may, in fact, be a *different* story, unto itself, but it is not the story of the dinner you're serving, to that, it's needless backstory.

    The grandma thing may be needed, interesting backstory that will delight your listeners. If you were querying the dinner though, you show off the entree and maybe say 'inspired by 120-year-old family recipes, this stew and blah feature...' because that's where the action of the story really starts. If you tell the whole 'book' you can start with great-grandma and the potato blight and build up a bit.

  14. #14
    Eight Legs, All Holding Pens ArachnePhobia's Avatar
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    As others have said, starting the story with a character in a sticky situation and then flashing back to how they got into it can and has been done, and well. The thing is, it's done because by creating a situation so bizarre readers must know how it happened, and promising you'll tell them eventually, you're creating suspense.

    Most flashbacks have the opposite effect. There is no suspense because we already know how things are going to turn out. A flashback that shows the MC handcuffed to the train tracks as the five o'clock speeds his way? Nothing to worry about. We know he's going to get out all right. We've seen him in scenes that happen after this one, absent any sign of having been mauled by a steam engine. It can still work if you throw something unexpected into the mix (his ten-year-old son is also on the tracks, and you haven't seen said kid in the "future scenes" and therefore don't know if he succeeds in rescuing him).

    There's also a subtle show-don't-tell issue at play. In this situation, it seems- I may be wrong- but it seems you want to use flashbacks to tell the reader that, while the MC is in hot water, she didn't get herself there. It's possible to get that across without hitting rewind; a man in the police station, arrested for soliciting, recognizes her and makes crude comments as he passes, and we see just how much it hurts.

    I don't think there's any rule that can't be effectively broken, and I do think there's some essential information you may have to deliver through a flashback (a murder one of the POV characters witnessed, but never told anyone about until now because of blackmail/threats/misplaced loyalty; in most cases, it's better to illustrate that in a flashback then have said character infodump it at the dinner table, where there's no conflict and the most interesting action is the MC pouring vinegar on her salad). Flashbacks aren't bad, they're just easily misused, and if there's one in your story, it doesn't hurt to ask yourself, "Is this the best possible way to get this information to the reader?"
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    Just pokin' about Anna Spargo-Ryan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArachnePhobia View Post
    Most flashbacks have the opposite effect. There is no suspense because we already know how things are going to turn out.
    This hasn't been my experience at all. Yes, in the examples you've given, at their basic level we know the MC lives. But in revealing aspects of the character's personality, motives and history, a good writer gives us greater understanding of what shaped the person they are now and the suspense comes from wondering how that will impact on the situation they now find themselves in.
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    Eight Legs, All Holding Pens ArachnePhobia's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by annaspargoryan View Post
    This hasn't been my experience at all. Yes, in the examples you've given, at their basic level we know the MC lives. But in revealing aspects of the character's personality, motives and history, a good writer gives us greater understanding of what shaped the person they are now and the suspense comes from wondering how that will impact on the situation they now find themselves in.
    But couldn't a good author reveal the same aspects of personality, motive, and history in a scene that happens in the present and also advances the plot at hand? I get that the mix changes a little when you're writing about time-travel or Eldritch Abominations whose actions transcend the boundaries of spacetime, in which case eras act more like settings. There's also a difference if you're setting up a frame story, which is what the original sounded like to me ("A nun gets dragged off in handcuffs... stick around to find out how and why!"); in that case, the frame is more like a flash-forward and the meat of the story is happening in the past. And, as I said, there are cases where flashbacks and backstory are the most efficient way to deliver information to the reader, where doing tricks to try to write around them would be obvious and annoying.

    But reading a book that has a flashback every other chapter, for no other reason than the author likes those scenes? That's like trying to watch a movie with someone who keeps hitting pause in the middle of the best parts to elaborate on the make and model of the car on the street corner in the background, the atmospheric conditions shaping the clouds overhead, and who the leading actress is supposed to be having an affair with in real life, according to the latest tabloid headlines. It's annoying, and can easily get to the point you forget (or no longer care) what the movie is actually supposed to be about.
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  17. #17
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    There are times when revealing our histories is apropos, but honestly, aren't those moments few and far between? Generally, who we are is reflected in the things we say, the way we feel, how we act and react, the decisions we make, our beliefs, etc.--

    Every time I do or say something, I don't quantify it by saying, See, when I was four my dad died, or Once my mom stabbed me in the hand with a fork, or I was almost raped once, or I worked in a factory, or The first time I had sex, I. . .

    Those singular experiences, and countless others have shaped who I am, but I am circumspect when it comes to revealing them, and to whom, and to what extent, and to what end. You have to consider the purpose. I think the same holds true in our writing.
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  18. #18
    I'm already a real writer. Katrina S. Forest's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HFgal View Post
    Katrina, The arrest was in the prologue in my example.
    And... that's exactly why me reading posts and typing replies on my iPhone when I'm severely sleep-deprived is a really stupid idea.

    My apologies.
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  19. #19
    Makes useful distinctions Lady Ice's Avatar
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    Backstory can raise the stakes. For example, if a man is doing a dive from a great height, there's conflict. However, if we know that as a child he almost drowned during a dive then that makes the scene more dramatic and heightens our understanding.

    The backstory has to enhance our understanding of the present.
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  20. #20
    Huh. kkbe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lady Ice View Post
    Backstory can raise the stakes. For example, if a man is doing a dive from a great height, there's conflict. However, if we know that as a child he almost drowned during a dive then that makes the scene more dramatic and heightens our understanding.

    The backstory has to enhance our understanding of the present.
    Yep. How you do that is the key. Say there's some conflict relative to that dive. If we know he almost drowned as a kid doing a dive, tension is ramped. Question is, how do we know what happened when he was a kid? The writer lets us know, preferably creatively and with finesse (as opposed to boring us to tears with bloated infodump, or tying the fact to a brick and bonking us over the head with it).
    Last edited by kkbe; 01-14-2013 at 02:55 AM.
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  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArachnePhobia View Post
    But couldn't a good author reveal the same aspects of personality, motive, and history in a scene that happens in the present and also advances the plot at hand? I get that the mix changes a little when you're writing about time-travel or Eldritch Abominations whose actions transcend the boundaries of spacetime, in which case eras act more like settings. There's also a difference if you're setting up a frame story, which is what the original sounded like to me ("A nun gets dragged off in handcuffs... stick around to find out how and why!"); in that case, the frame is more like a flash-forward and the meat of the story is happening in the past. And, as I said, there are cases where flashbacks and backstory are the most efficient way to deliver information to the reader, where doing tricks to try to write around them would be obvious and annoying.

    But reading a book that has a flashback every other chapter, for no other reason than the author likes those scenes? That's like trying to watch a movie with someone who keeps hitting pause in the middle of the best parts to elaborate on the make and model of the car on the street corner in the background, the atmospheric conditions shaping the clouds overhead, and who the leading actress is supposed to be having an affair with in real life, according to the latest tabloid headlines. It's annoying, and can easily get to the point you forget (or no longer care) what the movie is actually supposed to be about.
    This should be true of any scenes that are included just because the author likes them, which is why I qualified 'good writer'. Well chosen flashbacks aren't just tedious glimpses of the MC's past. Lady Ice said it perfectly
    May Love Save Us - Picador 2015
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  22. #22
    Who wants a cup of tea? HFgal's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArachnePhobia View Post
    if there's one in your story, it doesn't hurt to ask yourself, "Is this the best possible way to get this information to the reader?"
    I really like this as the bumper sticker version of this thread, although there is a lot of other valuable elements here too.

    Cornflake, I was just talking about the MS, not the query. Wow, if someone is doing backstory or flashback in their query letter, that would be really... bizarre.

  23. #23
    Understood. Pyekett's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HFgal View Post
    Cornflake, I was just talking about the MS, not the query. Wow, if someone is doing backstory or flashback in their query letter, that would be really... bizarre.
    If that were the extent of the bizarre in QLH, it wouldn't be nearly so much fun. Heh.

    Added: Sometimes you get the perfect love story.

    cornflake, you complete me.
    Gone Fishin' (February 25, 2013)

  24. #24
    Who wants a cup of tea? HFgal's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pyekett View Post
    .
    Added: Sometimes you get the perfect love story.

    cornflake, you complete me.
    I think you have to see the original sexist post prompting cornflake to go all pedo-porno to really get the humor...

    But cornflake made me want to rename my book 'Charles and Aidan's Infinite Playlist'.

  25. #25
    Understood. Pyekett's Avatar
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    I know.

    It ... just could not be better.
    Gone Fishin' (February 25, 2013)

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