Writing 101: Backstory

And Now...the Back of the Story.

Our characters are fascinating people (or creatures for the fantasy fans out there). They have complex lives full of drama, love, pain, and joy. As the creators of these characters we know all about them and want our readers to love/hate them as much as we do.

So how do we do that? Most importantly, spend the first three chapters of your novel giving the reader a full account of the past twenty years of your character's life so they can fully appreciate the subtle nuances of your character's actions.

Wait, what? We aren't supposed to do that? Well, there goes 15K from my word count. But I promise, knowing what (insert character) wore to Prom her Junior year is going to be really important later on.

OK, so you need some backstory. The real trick is dishing it out at the right time, in the right format, and in the right quantity. That seems pretty straightforward, but if like me you want to know more, here are some helpful tips.

According to Vicki Hinze the one absolute place backstory doesn't belong is in the opening pages. This is your chance to capture a reader's attention, so you need to hit them with the here and now.

I love her advice for how to incorporate the history that your character needs. “Think of bites. You can't eat a roast in one bite. But you can eat a roast by eating a lot of little bites. It's the same thing, for the same reason. So you don't choke.”

Hinze doesn't agree with the idea of cutting all backstory. And neither do I. By picking just the right slice of history to share, you give your reader better understanding of your character's motivations. Hinze agrees that these little nuggets of info “evoke the images and feelings you want the reader to have so that the reader reacts emotionally and logically to the characters the way you want them to react.”

So how do you pick which nuggets to share? Camy Tang has a great checklist to keep you from fluffing your MS with info a reader doesn't need. If you answer these questions honestly, you'll probably come up with a fairly short list of declassified facts.

1. Is your backstory absolutely relevant?
2. Is your backstory short?
3. Is your backstory broken up or inserted all at once?
4. Is there a dire reason for a character to need the information?
5. Is there conflict preventing the information from coming to light?
6. Is the information tied to some type of action?
7. Can you create a situation where someone needs to know the information?
8. Is the backstory given from the point of view of the character with the most to lose?
9. Is the backstory realistically and believably conveyed by the character?

So that covers when and what to include, but the hardest part for me is the how. Nothing is worse than the “As you know, John, we've been friends our whole lives.” Unless John has amnesia this is not going to impress your reader.

Going back to Tang, she suggests beating the information out of your characters. Or something like that. She suggest you “make that person have to fight to get the information. Create conflict that tries to prevent the character from finding out what they need to know. Let the witness be slippery or reluctant. Make obstacles for the character, and the reader will be drawn into his fight to find out the information.”

Kathy Steffen suggests that we expose critical backstory through dialogue. She says, “A veiled reference to something in the past can intrigue a reader.” I say, this sounds good but is probably harder than that. If you make your comment too veiled, the reader might be confused.

JK Rowling is a master at weaving in the little details. When bits of information needed to be shared, she often has the character unable to give all the information. Just as we were about to learn something really juice, Snape would but his greasy nose right into the thick of it. As a reader this gave us just enough to know that something is important, but also enough intrigue to keep us readeing to find out what it is.

I also love shushing my characters. When the big mouth brother is about to tell a tale of past embarrassment, the MC stops him cold with a look of murderous rage. No need to spill all the beans, but the damage is done.

So how do you know if you've done it right? Steffen suggests utilizing a very high-tech device to locate and eliminate unnecessary backstory. The Highlighter. Go back and highlight anything that is background information. If it doesn't happen during the time line of your tale, it's history. Then take a hard look and determine if it is essential information to the reader in order to understand your character's actions. If not, it has to go.

The cold, hard fact is that you have to write your character's history. After all, our past is what shapes our future, and this is true for you as a writer and for your characters. Unfortunately, most of that backstory is for your eyes only. While it does nothing for your word count, backstory will help you to write characters that hold a reader (and hopefully an agent).

Here are the links I used for today's entry.

Do you struggle with backstory? How do you handle it? Share your thoughts with other writers.

Do you have other writing issues you'd like to see covered here? Please let me know.