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Friday, April 22, 2011

A Lesson on Backstory From Feed

The other day, I read Feed by M.T. Anderson. I had been meaning to read this, but my to-be-read pile is the size of a small library, and it just wasn’t on top. (Okay, there may be more to my book choices than a random grab.) For some reason—probably all of the reviews that said it’s hard to get into because of the futuristic language—it remained unread.

The other day, I finally picked it up. The premise hooked me. The first line hooked me. Before I go any further, shall I bring you up to speed?

Blurb: Spending time partying on the moon and riding around in his “upcar,” Titus is an average teen of the future, complete with a computer chip implant—the “Feed”—that lets corporate marketers and government agencies broadcast directly into his brain. Then Titus meets Violet, and an anti-Feed hacker shuts down their Feeds for a short time; but when Violet’s Feed is seriously damaged, she begins spouting some radical ideas.

First line: We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

Cool, right? I loved this book, and if you haven’t read it I suggest you get thy tukus to a bookstore, stat. The slang took some getting used to, but before the first chapter ended I had a good feel for the language. (And it’s so important to the book’s theme that I can’t imagine the story without it.)

There were a lot of things I loved about this book, including the way Anderson gets his message across, but I’m only going to talk about one* here: the way Anderson revealed the world.

I’m not against having a character explain the world to us bit by bit. Take The Hunger Games:
“Our house is almost at the edge of the Seam. I only have to pass a few gates to reach the scruffy field called the Meadow. Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire loops.”
I loved The Hunger Games** and never felt like I was getting too much backstory. But what Anderson does in Feed is take it a step further. In that excerpt from The Hunger Games, we wouldn’t have already known what the Seam or District 12 were. We’d only know about the gates if Katniss noticed something unusual or annoying about them. We definitely wouldn’t know that the field is called Meadow. Or we wouldn’t know that what she’s calling Meadow is a scruffy field. And we wouldn’t be told that the fence encloses all of District 12—because, you know, she grew up with it and wouldn’t find it interesting enough to mention.

In Feed, the world and its rules are explained only when the main character is doing something that requires him to compare the present to the past. And even then, it’s a short description.

For example:

Instead of saying: “Our houses are built in the sky, each one in its own pod.”
Titus would say: “So I took the upcar above the Clouds™ until I saw our pod.” 

As readers, we understand that his society uses flying cars, that the clouds are manufactured, and they live in pods above ground. Being able to learn about Titus’ world slowly drew me in so completely. The gradual reveal, combined with the way Anderson uses advertisements within the story, set me firmly in the mind of Titus the boy, not Titus the narrator.

I’m not sure this backstory-on-a-need-to-know-basis technique will work for every book. (Or that every book needs to avoid any telling when it comes to the backstory. Backstory clearly worked in The Hunger Games.) But when you read Feed (because you’re totally going to read it, right?), pay attention to the facts you’re given, when, and how.

At the very least it’s a lesson in trimming backstory. You may think you need that Totally Awesome and Unquestionably Brilliant section, but chances are your reader will understand the story without it.

Has anyone read Feed? Did you find the lack of backstory interesting or annoying? And if you haven’t, how much is too much (or too little) backstory for you?

*If you want a full review, check out Pheobe North’s. She says everything I’d want to say.
**Which is why I scream like a fangirl every time a new cast member is revealed.

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