Thursday, August 7, 2014

Avoid Backstory Plot Holes

Backstory, when used properly, enriches a plot. Used poorly, backstory creates a plot hole that your reader is forced to skip over or sludge through. Most readers skip past the boring bits.


The problem with backstory is often two-fold: too much too soon, or way too much information.

Backstory can be related through dialogue, flashback, internal dialogue, thoughts, and narrative. Over the next few posts, we'll explore the finer points of using backstory with mastery.

1. Don't begin your novel with backstory. Invest your readers in the current situation before trying to explain the character's history. Otherwise, why should they care?

If the action has already passed, we know the characters lived to tell about it. It may have bearing on what is happening now, but the characters survived and have moved onto what is happening now. The reader may feel there is no need to read a long passage detailing what happened in the past if the characters are clearly functioning in the present.

2. Backstory is best presented in short bursts: no long-winded information dumps. The delicate balancing act is giving the reader enough backstory to help explain the current situation, but not so much that she is derailed from the forward momentum of the story.

3. If you feel a section of backstory requires a full scene with its own beginning, middle, and end, it should contain tension and a scene goal. A chapter or two of backstory loses the reader. She pages forward until she gets to the part that matters. That is not the kind of page turning to aim for.

4. Bits of backstory can be related through narrative, but keep it short and simple. Transition in and out and don't offset it. A paragraph or two should suffice. Resist the urge to insert large sections of italicized words. You should be able to transition into and out of backstory without resorting to special fonts or italics.

5. Backstory is not the same as a subplot set in the past when weaving separate story threads together. A subplot set in the past has its own story arc and every scene should contain conflict.

6. Backstory should not cram in the character's past history all at once. People don't tell each other everything about themselves and their lives the first time they meet. If they do, their psychological boundaries are fuzzy. They make people nervous by offering too much information. You don't need to tell your readers everything up front either. If you do, your structure is fuzzy. Build a relationship with the reader first then begin sharing stories from the past.

7. Backstory works well in internal conflict scenes when your protagonist struggles with his personal dilemma. His personal dilemma can be rooted in his past. It could be the partner he didn't save, the girl he didn't get, or the friend he failed. The backstory makes the current situation more poignant and should be relevant to the overall story. Resist the urge for a long memory scene. It is more powerful if the character is remembering while doing something to progress the currrent plot.

8. Backstory must, above all, be relevant. Don't spend paragraphs telling us about Dick's botany hobby unless he uses botany to solve the overall story problem. It bores your readers. They don't need to know about every Civil War battle, every lover the protagonist ever had, or the life stories of everyone who sank with the Titanic. Backstory that has no relationship to the current story is irritating. Readers flip past it or skim read it. If it happens often enough, they put the book down and walk away.

Stay tuned for more discussion on how to layer backstory to create conflict.


Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

13 comments :

  1. Excellent post, Diana. Backstory is tricky. Patience is the key to finding the right places to insert what the reader should know without dumping it.

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  2. I write the backstory separately and decide where it belongs and how much based on how it affects the current story. Does it add pathos, meaning, motivation, conflict?

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  3. Good tips, Diana. I'm reading a book now that has a fair amount of backstory coming in at different points, and I am waiting for some of it to be relevant. The good think is the backstory is being doled out in small segments.

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    1. They may be going for "intrigue" or they are just wasting your time. You might not figure it out until the end. :)

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  4. Excellent points. The advice I got at a conference year ago still works for me.
    1. Backstory should be administered like an IV drip, not tube feeding.
    2. If you're meeting someone new at a cocktail party, how much about yourself would you divulge in that kind of a situation?


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    1. I like the analogy of the IV drip. This post could have been called, "Don't the drain the life from your story." LOL.

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  5. Much good advice, Diana. I especially deplore the tendency of newbies to start with an info-dump prologue that would have been better left unwritten or sprinkled through the rest of the story.

    Of course, it is always possible to break from conventions, particularly in some genres. I have sometimes started with a flash-back prologue involving a character who is key to the plot but actually is killed off later. Done well, this can work in thrillers; I would not recommend it for romance novels. :-)

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    1. I've seen literary and thrillers start with the end and work their way back or start with the end and let you read on to find out how they got that way. Not a big fan. But it is certainly done.

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  6. Holes in parallel plots drive me nuts too. We could do another post about that!

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    1. Bifurcated plots, like a dual chamber heart, need to beat in rhythm together.

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  7. Excellent advice, Diana. Drips are more enticing than floods any day. Drips build tension. Floods are simply dangerous!

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    1. Another good title, "Don't drown your audience!" :)

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  8. Information dumps invariably turn off a reader while little tidbits from the past inform and intrigue. We all have pasts, and so do our characters--it's most likely what made them who they are when they appear in the story. It's also the link that helps the reader to understand their situations and actions. Back story, sprinkled like tasty seasoning on a savory dish, flavors a story throughout its length. This is an excellent post, Diana.

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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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