Avoiding throwaway storylines and backstories

Sometimes it’s easier to spot weaknesses and errors in other people’s work (published or not) when you’ve been guilty of it yourself. Or sometimes you spot it in your own work when you’re looking it over after getting some new writing advice.

A storyline or part of a character’s backstory shouldn’t just be put in a book to be sensational or because you think it’s somehow expected. All the “hot adolescent issues” I had in the earliest drafts of my first Atlantic City books feel like this. Not only do most of them not even fit with how these characters ultimately developed, but they feel really gimmicky, cliché, forced, and out of place.

Like, in the WTCOAC book set in 1948-9, Al suddenly has a full-blown eating disorder. During her teen years, she plays the lead female role on a popular local teen soap, My Two Lives. Mr. Porter, the director/producer, told her to lose weight so she’d be able to film a long scene with a massive Easter meal. So suddenly she’s got bulimia, in some very public, unnecessarily graphic scenes. Later on she switched to anorexia, and was cured as miraculously and speedily as someone in a Beatrice Sparks book. Hey, I was only 13.

Also just as suddenly and out of nowhere, also in 1949, Al was a huge flaming racist. This is really embarrassing to read back on so many years later. She has meltdowns at the beach and in a restaurant when African-Americans appear, and brutally scrubs her hand when she touches someone she didn’t realize was African-American. Oh, and she’s also suddenly a gigantic homophobe. Yeah, because in 1949-50, there were SO many gays out of the closet!

Al isn’t perfect, and is always a bit of a lightheaded ditz, but she’s not a bad person. She’s actually kind of sweet, in spite of her favorite line, “I’m only a woman!” She finally reaches a point where she’s tired of being pushed around and not taken seriously, and really develops a long-latent feminist consciousness. But she’s definitely not a bigot, at least not by her generation’s standards.

So it really annoys me when I’m reading a book where a big issue like that is introduced, often rather dramatically, and then quickly dropped like it never happened. Don’t reveal that a main or important character is bulimic, was raped, survived incest, is in an abusive relationship, is suicidal, or is doing cocaine, only to never return to that! If the character and everyone around him or her functions for the rest of the book as though that issue doesn’t even exist or isn’t important, just remove it. It clearly wasn’t that important to your storyline or the character’s backstory if you forgot about it so quickly.

I’m beyond embarrassed at how, at age 12-13, I seriously used rape as a throwaway storyline. It’s bad enough that a lot of tv shows use the “rape as character development” trope for so many female characters. At that age, I had no idea what the lifelong impact of this violent crime is. Oh, and in the 1940s, a rape survivor wouldn’t have gone around telling everyone about it or acting like it were no big deal. If anything, people would’ve taken the guy’s side and seen the girl as a whore, and possibly also making up stories to try to smear a good old boy’s reputation. Ugh.

Three of my characters are survivors of incestuous childhood abuse—Lenore Eve Troy (née Hartlein), Julie Claire Laska (née Spirnak), and Lyubov Ilyinichna Koneva (née Leontiyevna Zhukova). This is definitely a big part of their respective backstories and continued character development. I didn’t just put it in there to be sensationalistic. It’s very bad writing if you give a character something that traumatic in her past and then depict her like she’s totally normal, with no lingering, permanent aftereffects, like in how she relates to men or how she sees herself.

A character’s backstory makes him or her who s/he is. If s/he functions for the entire book as though a rather traumatic event or defining issue doesn’t matter, you should ask yourself why you even included it. If it’s not an integral part of the storyline or the character’s personality, either rethink how you’re writing this book or just remove it.

Valentine and Ajax (Verdana)

(Warning: Contains some mature language.)

Font: Verdana

Year created: 1996

Personal experience: Some of my files of notes and scratch work have been saved into this font through default, and I rather like it, for a sans serif font.

Chapter: “Valentine and Ajax”

Book: Cinnimin

Written: 4 September-1 October 2002


This is Part XLI (41) of my magnum opus under the current table of contents, the second Part of Saga VI (the Nineties), Children’s Children. The title couple are Cinni’s firstborn grandson, Ajax Kevorkian, né Seward-Filliard (born February 1972), and the firstborn of her dear friend and stepsister-in-law Gayle, Valentine Pinkerton-Pembroke (born 1970). (Valentine was, surprise, born on Valentine’s Day!) It’s set from 17 May-23 August 1991. Near the beginning, the Seward patriarch, dear Grandpa Stan, dies.

During the wedding reception, Julieanna’s troubled son André is thrown over the edge to learn that his wife Bridget, who’s also his stepsister, is pregnant a third time without consulting him, esp. since they’ve already got two sets of twins. The elderly family patriarch suffers a stroke during André’s ranting, and things only get worse from there.

Some highlights:

“Corpses rot quickly in the heat,” Al advised. “Somebody wrap him up in ice packs before rigor mortis sets in.”

“Under my roof, you will cut off your own head if I order it,” Mr. Seward growled.

“Don’t be coy about what you do,” Max laughed. “My beautiful daughter-in-law hawks pornos and sex toys.”

Mr. Seward turned white when he spied Luke assembling the sixty-year-old television set. He anticipated hearing a huge pop or snap or bang when Luke adjusted the rheostat that turned it on. Instead a fuzzy black and white image filled the small screen.

Eunomia came into the room carrying a chocolate dildo filled with honey. Fudzie ran to lock up the rest of that month’s freebies, only to find Pandora and Stan sitting wide-eyed before a VCR broadcasting Aspen’s Mountains. He yanked the plug.

R.R. reached out and cuffed Ernie. “Do you really want to imagine your big sister slamming the sheets?”

Gayle pinched him. “And must you talk so cavalierly about our firstborn having intercourse?”

“Now Ajax, you’d better knock my daughter up asap,” R.R. said. “Gayle and I are dying for some grandkids. Just look what happened to your great-uncle M.J. He nearly went insane waiting for grandkids!”

[Cinni’s firstborn Demian, increasingly upset at the extravagant wedding presents his de facto father-in-law Max is giving Valentine and Ajax] “No fair! I had to bust my ass painting just to put my wife through Princeton, and they’re getting everything handed to them on a silver platter!”

“I helped Mommy get pregnant again,” Olivia said proudly. “So she’ll let me name the kid as a reward!”

“I have been duped for the last time by that woman! I swear to God I shoulda had a vasectomy after she told me she’d tricked me into impregnating her with a second set of twins!”

Everyone but André froze in horror as old Nathaniel Malspur toppled over on his right side, his face white and limp.

“What, you think the grounds are cursed just ’cause some geezer on his last legs had a stroke here?” Bobbie Jo challenged. “It’s bad enough the perpetrator fled.”

“Oh, thank God, Max.” Luke’s eyes lit up. “I was just hideously attacked by that man, and your bitch of a daughter is already spinning it to make me look like the bad guy. Give me like ten thousand dollars and I’ll leave town to go on a mission asap.”

“So you can try to convert more old folks on their deathbeds?” Nick screamed, nearly popping his jugular.

“Wolfgang!” André thundered. “No kid of mine is gonna be named Wolfgang!”

“Do you have a toy like this?” Pandora gleefully pushed a button that sent a lifesize Oscar the Grouch towering out of a plastic rubbish bin. Kevin screamed.

“This is just one big conspiracy to rob me of my money!” he ranted when they got home. “What is it, quints?”

Bridget screamed when she saw her oldest daughter’s cello had been brutally smashed. André laughed.

[Bélgica, Julieanna’s oldest daughter] “André got recovered by a family out for a yacht ride, bleeding, unconscious, slit wrists, an apparent jump from the bridge into the ocean. They don’t think he’s gonna make it.”

[The elderly Mr. Malspur] “Give André my blood. I have negative AB.”

“I’m ninety-eight years old. I’ve lived long enough. André is only twenty-eight. He has four young children and two more on the way.”

[Typical Violet, not understanding her niece was giving her anything but a compliment] “Oh, my heart glows to hear you say that, Ash! I may be two months shy of sixty-one, but I love to be remembered as a cold domineering bitch who always gets what she wants!”