Monday, April 7, 2014

Backstory: How Much do You Use?

Now that you’ve created a character sketch, with your main character’s personality traits, flaws, quirks and secrets, what do you do with it?

As beginning writers, we often think we need to put this all up front, so the reader will know exactly who this character is, what influenced him and how she got into whatever mess she’s found herself in.

We’ve all read books that start out with a great hook—the character in the middle of a situation that makes us want to know how he/she gets out of it. So, we’re all primed for the action, the world of this story. But what happens if the whole next chapter takes us back to the character’s childhood, explaining how mistreated he/she was, describing all their physical traits, and reasons she hates men or he wants to climb the highest mountain.

That should give us all we need to know about the character so we can go on and enjoy the rest of the story, right?

Wrong.

Including big chunks of backstory in the opening pages is like saying, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”

Long paragraphs, pages or even chapters of “telling” stops the action cold. We don’t have any emotion invested in this character yet, so we don’t necessarily care enough about him to want to continue on the journey. Like meeting a new friend in real life, we need to get to know the character as we continue to meet him, see him in various situations, see how he reacts.

Interrupting the story to tell the reader about something that happened before it began works against what we’re trying to accomplish: engaging the readers and sweeping them up into the world of our novel.

Backstory is best woven in gradually throughout the story. Giving the reader a tidbit here and another one there helps to heighten the tension, because we keep reading to find out why or how or when. And it slowly builds the character, just like that new friend you’ve met.

The book Icebound by Dean Koontz is a great example of withholding crucial backstory information. A woman scientist is among a group conducting a secret experiment in the Arctic. As this action-packed thriller progresses, we learn that she has a fear of ice. Everything that happens escalates this fear just a little, but we do not find out why until the very end. Very powerful way to use backstory.

Folio Literary Management’s Jeff Kleinman offers this hint: “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.”

How do you use backstory?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, will be published in May 2014. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.





15 comments :

  1. I'm working on a first-person memoir, some of the backstory necessary to explain the abuse I received is told to therapists. They ask questions and I am able to answer (often with thoughts like, why is he asking about her when I want to talk about me). Another way I've used backstory is in conversation. For example, asking questions about a photograph in my room and having my mom tell me some of her past or looking through a photo album and dialoguing. The last way I did some backstory was during a church testimonial meeting where my father stood up and told of a healing he had - but it also gave backstory. None of the passages are long, but they provide the reader with the information they need in a first-person way. The conversations I report really happened, so it is authentic.

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    1. Heather, your methods of using backstory for memoir or real-life stories seems effective.

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  2. I use it sparingly and never start with it. My rules are: it must be essential to the plot, define the characters in an important way, and be delivered in a way that isn't boring. A lot of "baggage" can come out of a heated exchange or a short internal monologue rant. The tension lies in the character not being able to say what he wants to say. When I find pages of backstory dump, I skim it. It is a prime field for narrator intrusion.

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    1. I agree, Diana. I tend to skim those long passages too. I like it much better when I'm "teased" with a tidbit of information here and there.

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  3. Early on, I got 2 bits of good advice about back story. It's an IV drip, not tube-feeding. The other: You just meet someone at a cocktail party. How much of your life do you reveal? Those have helped me a lot. Until you need a fact, no need to tell the reader. Of course, the fact that I never do those character sketches helps because I don't have that back story to dump.

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    1. I love the analogy for the IV drip--just perfect!

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  4. I'm with you, Heidi ... for me, 'baby don't got back'.

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  5. Backstory's vital because it makes the character who he or she is. It also lays the groundwork for action and reaction, as noted by your reference to the Koontz book. Working the past (backstory) seamlessly into the present is an acquired skill, but one worth cultivating. Personally, I know my characters' histories well; however, I use them only as needed to explain/justify an action or dialogue that might otherwise seem somewhere out in left field.

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    1. That's right, Linda. Often we writers know a lot more about our characters than we will ever share with our readers. It does take practice,practice, practice to learn our craft! We never stop learning!

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  6. Heidi backstory is such a great topic, and important to the success of your story. I once set out to use "backstory" as a workshop topic, and found so many great techniques that it becomes an eight-week series!

    Terry I love those two tips! I say wait as long as possible—until your reader simply has to have this info, now!—and then make sure it's motivating the action in the current scene. As in, the characters are about to make love/sexual abuse flashback/while he uses the bathroom she picks up her clothes and leaves. Then again, being a "waiter," I might have her gather her clothes and leave just to raise another question in the reader's mind, and feed the backstory out even later!

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  7. If we writers would remember what we like to read, the backstory problem would not exist. I love the comment about backstory being like an IV drip. That's a perfect description.

    We dribble in the backstory as needed. Readers do not need to know everything, but they do need to know why characters do what they do. If abuse happened to your character and is now motivating her behavior, that can be shown with snippets of backstory. That's how I handled it in The Clock Strikes Midnight. The fact that my readers do not know exactly why my characters are doing things but they know it pertains to their past, keeps the suspense heightened. The snippets (or the IV drip) give the reader just enough to keep reading.

    I haven't read Icebound but it sounds wonderful and will go on my must read list. Thanks for sharing.

    Joan Curtis
    www.joancurtis.com

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  8. I've almost finished an entire novella that is nothing but backstory! Mercy.

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  9. I do present character backstory in opening paragraphs, but it is always implicit and thoroughly melded into the action. (See, for example, first pages of Gasline.)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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