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The Gearbox: Plot vs. Backstory

by on Mar.04, 2009, under The Gearbox

Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Today we’ll tackle a topic that should be a no-brainer. Why? Because I’m pretty much an amateur, myself, so I can pretend to be knowledgeable by writing well about this idea.

The question is simple, really: What is the difference between plot and backstory, and what are the uses of both?

I know that I said that it was a no-brainer, but the relationship between plot and backstory can be quite hairy, especially for writers of science fiction and fantasy. Have you ever spoken to an aspiring fantasy author and asked him or her what their book was about? How many times have you heard a response like this:

“Well, there was this war a loooooooong time ago, right? It divided the universal race into these three races: elves, men and dwarves. Anyway, so like, they’re all at war now because Misha the Red (she’s one of the Antediluvian Witches) decided that she wanted to take the Sickle of Life from the Cave of Peace. So now the elves are leading this blah blah blah blah blah…”

I hate to say this, because writing is supposed to be subjective, but WRONG. That is not what your book is about.

Your book is not about your caste system. Your book is not about the fancy name you came up with to call your giant mechs (I’m talking to you, anime!). Most of all, your book is not, and cannot be, about things that happened before your book takes place. And yet, so many authors focus almost the entirety of their attentions upon the backstory. Why? Is it because a bunch of us started our fantasy/sci-fi careers with Dungeons & Dragons campaign guides?

The plot of a book is the series of events that happens over the course of the story. I know that’s crazy talk, but there you have it. It starts on page one and it ends at the end. Also, I don’t believe that plot is something you can write, but that’s a discussion for next week.

I had a writing teacher tell me something once that absolutely changed the way that I looked at writing sci-fi and fantasy forever. I came into class with this mega-binder of backstory. It was the freaking Bible of that universe. It had historical details, timelines, races, magical abilities… even stats for D&D versions of a bunch of stuff. He took one look at it and asked, “Well, how does the book start?” I didn’t know, and that’s when he took me aside and told me, “Alex, I can tell you’ve worked really hard on this, but your story is like a stew. Right now, you have all of the spices in it that you could ever need, but you don’t have any meat or water or anything else. The backstory is just the flavor. You need to add in everything else.”

Simply put, a setting is not a novel. Don’t make the mistake of planning your story out that way.

Now, in order of importance for story planning:
BACKSTORY < PLOT < CHARACTER INTERACTION Of course, I could be totally wrong. If so, please- I urge you to step in and correct me!

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7 Comments for this entry

  • Rich

    I think Alex nailed the problem when he mentioned the D&D campaign guides, because the storytelling involved with role playing is quite different with the storytelling involved in writing pulp fiction.

    Consider what makes a “good” Dungeon Master:
    1. The ability to make very original and exotic worlds that are filled with unusual details to explore.

    2. The ability to weave a story around a party of main characters, and being flexible enough to allow them to move the plot of the story in their own way.

    3. Letting each member be an important part of the story, without letting one individual hog the glory.

    Now, what do most successful pulp writers do? They make a world that is often very similar to our own with a couple of exaggerations or sci-fi “what-if” style changes. This means that they don’t have to explain everything about the setting to the reader, only the tweaked parts.

    Their stories tend to be very plot driven: Protagonist A needs to stop antagonist B from carrying out plan C, for example is the plot of nearly every James Bond movie. This makes for very tight, compelling prose that keep’s a reader’s attention.

    They tend to be very limited in how the characters drive the plot. In classic pulp, everyone other that the protagonist and the antagonist tends to be a minor character, whose only job is to react to either the protagonist or the antagonist, help them out or get in their way. There is one Sam Spade, there is one Zorro, there is one Buck Rogers. Ensemble pulp is rare, and usually in the form of sidekicks like Tonto or Cheeta.

    Plot is king in pulp. Character development is rare. Setting is usually a minor character outside of high fantasy, which is what caused a lot of the role-playing in the first place.

    In summary: good DM habits can make for bad pulp writer habits. And vice-versa.

  • Ashley

    This is a good reason why I tend to stay away from a lot of fantasy (sci-fi, for some reason, I have a higher threshold for). LoTR and Ivanhoe just flat out put me to sleep because of this, and I don’t care how “classic” they are. It’s boring! Boring I tell you!

    However, having said that, what takes a novel from being “so-so” to being AWESOME, to me, is well executed, well timed backstory. It’s just like conveying information through dialogue: you have to do it well and in precisely planned chunks, or it just comes off as “oh, how expository of you.”

    The one exception to this rule that I can think of is First Love by Adrienne Sharp, but that’s only because her characters were SO well executed they didn’t need much backstory.

  • Chris

    You’re wrong.


    And as proof: The Porn Industry.

    If all you have is character interactions (and nudity) you get a porno. Without plot, the character interactions are just the chit chat that you wish you could fast forward through.


  • Alex White

    That was a heck of a response!

    Look, I think that the critical element of good storytelling is good character interaction, because when you have that, the plot writes itself. I actually think porn is all plot, in fact. The plot is the cable is broken, and the lady who wants cable is out of cash. The character interaction is fairly unbelievable, however- thus the breakdown.

  • Nate

    I think you are taking very good specific advice “Don’t get distracted by backstory” and overgeneralizing it to “Backstory isn’t as important as character interaction or plot.”

    You are analytical enough to avoid some of the pitfalls many artists have when they throw out convention. They tend to discard the consistency that both convention and reality have. This is a deal breaker for me.

    Art is interpreted. When a story has story elements that seem incongruous, the setting either clashes with the plot, or there better be some explanation coming. I’ve watched, seen, and read examples of this, and every time, I hated it.

    If you want to relate a deeper meaning than just superficial reaction, you need character history which in turn requires history of their world. Otherwise, your character exists only in the now, and are destined to be flat or arbitrary. Context is ALWAYS important to understanding, and that’s what a setting’s back-story provides.

  • Alex White

    Well put, Nate! I think your compelling counter-argument forces me to rephrase myself, sir. A little backstory goes a long way. I don’t think you can say the same for plot and character interaction. They’re inherently weaker, because you need so much more of the latter to make a compelling story. Character interactions are the meat of scenes, and plot is the resultant series of events.

    It does not take much to develop decent backstory, either. If I tell the readers at the beginning that someone’s family was killed by an organization who saw them as a threat, that pretty much creates enough context for the rest of the book. People might want to know why, so I sprinkle in a little more backstory.

    I’m not even sure I disagree with you. Certainly, convention means a lot to sci-fi and fantasy, and I use plenty of it myself. I like to violate it, but that’s beside the point. I think we have enough epic backstories on the bookshelves to last us the rest of time, and I want to see authors who try to leverage their stories on the events contained therein, not the events prior.

  • Nate

    That restatement certainly does work us ever closer to a version we can agree on. I would only clarify that character interactions need not involve another character, at this point. (character interacting with his environment, say, or struggling with himself.)

    The only back story that is critical to your story is the back story that informs the characters’ choices. We do agree on this.

    Consistency is required in a story, and the reader needs to understand why the major characters make the choices they make. Otherwise, it’s trivia. If well written, and especially if it involves interesting scenes, such extras can conceivably add to the story. As your instructor said, though, it’s like spices. That’s actually a fairly good analogy. You need enough, you don’t want too much, and you can work with a range. In fact, tastes vary about the amounts. (As a related aside:Teaching by showing is a classic approach with good reason, and applies well to characterization. Showing a character making hard choices may show him as hard and callous, or simply willing to make the hard choices, or even a sort of character who has dehumanized others. Dialog can clarify, but back-story can help as well, as it can answer such a question through history.)

    Using your example, if my parents were killed by some group I would want to know why. Thus, you’ve got great opportunity to explain the important bits as part of the narrative. (Perhaps while the character learns it, or simply in a flashback explaining what he’d discovered.) Even better, it fits either writing method you want to try. (the organic/inorganic thing)

    I doubt we differ much on this. You’re right about that.

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