It glares at you, large and foreboding. Every editor cautions against too much of it. contest judges scorn you for dumping it. Yet, your story cannot survive without it.
The dreaded backstory.
Rather than tell you how not to info dump your backstory all over your first few pages—I’ve enlisted the help of other authors, an agent, and an editor to give you this week’s Write Tip Wednesday.
I’ll start with something my friend and fellow writer/Heart of Dixie RWA member Anne Parent said on the matter when I asked. “A writer should always ask what is important to the story.”
If losing a chunk of information in a scene wouldn’t take away from anything the reader needs to know, then cut it. You don’t want to tell the reader everything about your character right off the bat, you want the mystery of who the character is to pull the reader in and the plot to weave the story around them.
Only use the vital parts of the backstory in the actual story itself. Creating a detailed backstory of events is important to develop your character, but not necessarily important enough for the reader to know.
Amy Boles — Best advice I’d ever heard came from Susan Elizabeth Phillips–“Cut the first two chapters of your manuscript and start at chapter 3.” That alleviates a lot of back story.
In the second novel of my Arkada Fast series Hot Lap, I actually did this. Only instead of two chapters… I deleted seven and replaced them with a racing scene. The state of Hadley, the heroine’s, affairs would play out over the course of the novel. Telling everyone all her backstory at the front made the novel boring and Hadley came off super whiny.
Try looking at your story that way. If it can still stand on its own without the first few chapters setting the story up—get rid of them.
Kathryn Knight — “I get to know my characters intimately, but that doesn’t mean I put all those details into the story. I focus on including the pieces that help explain motivation, ie why a person behaves a certain way, why they want their goal, and what resulting emotions might fuel internal motivation and conflict. I also like use hints about backstory to keep the reader hooked – ie, Why is Emily in Haunted Souls so afraid to get involved with someone in the military? Or in Divine Fall, what happened in Dothan’s life that has sparked his quest for vengeance? Eventually these things are revealed, which continues to create a solid backstory while also building tension.”
I like Kathryn’s take on things a lot. Everyone always says to “sprinkle” the backstory in but never tell you how to do this. The lovely Ms. Knight just did. The readers need to know what immediately motivates a character. So if the scene is about the quest for vengeance, there is your chance to trickle in what sparked that quest.
Alicia Hunter Pace — “We all know not to do a big dump and to weave it in. But don’t wait too long. That will frustrate the reader.”
Another great point. You can’t wait too long to show your readers what motivates your characters.
Anna Lores – “As writers, we know everything about our characters, the settings, where they are going, and where they’ll end up. We also know ALL of their backstory, and we want everyone to know it. But do we really want to tell the reader everything?
The short and long of that answer is complex. Yes and no. Showing the reader through setting, dialogue, small cues here and there throughout the tale that’s being spun is the way I try and weave backstory into the erotic romance stories I write. Little by little, feeding readers puzzle pieces of the character’s past make the lives within the story carry a depth of complexity that one big narrative of information doesn’t.”
Anna sums up the author point of view rather perfectly here. Just keep working on making your pieces of back story small and necessary, then sprinkle them in where needed.
Funny story: while writing this blog post yesterday, I ended up procrastinating on Twitter and ran across this gem from Ali Herring (@HerringAli), Assistant Literary Agent at Spencerhill Associates:
Reading a promising query sub & BAM, three sentences of backstory a page into the first chapter. 3 sentences was all it took to break up the story! #writetip you have to become seamstresses w/backstory. Weave it in like golden thread, only when necessary to add light and color!
I love this, only when necessary and only to add light and color. Also tells you the sort of dump that will lose an agent or editor’s interest fast.
For more on her golden thread analogy check out this blog post (actually, check out this post period… it’s well worth the read): https://aliherringwrites.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/want-to-bore-an-agent-do-this/
Also a tip, Ali is awesome for throwing out these little gems. If you don’t follow her on twitter, you should. And if you’re querying agents and have an amazing manuscript … check here out. She rocks.
Last year when I started the submission process I got paired up with my very first editor. Her knowledge, guidance, and friendship have been vital to me in my publishing journey. Here is her editor’s take on this Write Tip Wednesday:
Sherri Good – Editor The Wild Rose Press
Effective Use of Backstory
The best use of backstory is to explain character behavior and plot development.
If your character self-sabotages, the readers will want to know why and what created that behavior. Conversation [dialogue] with a close friend, or something in the present story reminding the character of something from his/her past, can easily reveal important parts of the backstory at specific times.
Something/someone from your character’s past that force them to make an important change or affected their future/the plot will need explained.
Sometimes the readers need more information than simple flashbacks or dialogue can offer. If backstory is important for the readers to understand the overall story, a prologue may be necessary.
The moral of this story. Don’t get so hung up on fear of info dumps that you forget backstory is a wonderful tool if utilized sparingly.
Good luck and happy writing!
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Be sure to check out the other authors in this post as well!