Got two minutes? Then check out this week’s quick tip ~ How and when to share backstory
Hello and welcome…I am a freelance editor and an editor for The Wild Rose Press, as well as an author. I often struggle with my own writing, and I have found that sometimes, a little reminder of ways to improve the process can be helpful, so, I like to share these moments of brilliance with others :). But, in this busy world of ours, who has time for pages and pages of writing tips? That’s why I’ve condensed mine down to quick flashes you can read in (approximately) two minutes. Enjoy…
Disclaimer: All of my tips are suggestions, and are only my opinion. And, for the most part, there are exceptions when going against my advice will make your story read better. Take what works, leave the rest.
The age old question…how much backstory is too much? The answer… in your opening pages, pretty much ANY backstory is too much. Readers want to be dropped into the middle of the action. They don’t want to know about what a rough week your protagonist has had (we’ll call him Jonathan). How when Jonathan was a child, he dreamed of being a fireman or an astronaut. But boy did things take a wrong turn. Stuck in a crappy job as an insurance adjuster. He hadn’t wanted to take the position, but his father had recommended him and he had little choice. After all, his father had pretty much controlled him his entire life. A dead-end job and a crappy relationship. Although, he didn’t have to worry about that anymore. His girlfriend had dumped him. They’d been together since college, since the time they met at that party. It had been an immediate attraction. They’d begun dating and hadn’t been apart since. Until two days ago when she told him it was over. That she was seeing someone else. Oh well, they’d drifted apart. It was inevitable. Better that it happened now, instead of when they were married with kids. But, would he ever find the right person? Was there truly one soul mate out there for everyone? If so, he might never meet the person he was meant to be with. Heck, he might not survive the night. Jonathan took a deep, trembling breath and stared at the man aiming a gun at his chest.
What????? He has a gun aimed at his chest and we had to read all that prattle about his job and relationship and past? Nooo….let’s open with the guy holding the gun on him. If any of that other stuff is important, you can trickle it in later. When the situation calls for it.
Many authors, especially beginners, want readers to know everything about their characters up front. It’s not necessary. In fact, it’s boring. You want to engage readers in the here and now. If you want to briefly establish your character in their normal world before the inciting incident, that’s fine. But ‘briefly’ is the key word. And, establishing the character in their normal world is different than explaining about their childhood, letting us know how they met every character in the scene, how they got their job, how they ended up moving to their current location, what happened in the days preceding, etc.
A few examples of my openings (not that they are the BEST examples, but they are the only examples I can use without getting into trouble:)And, unfortunately, neither of them have riveting opening lines, but that’s something I can’t always pull off. Sigh…)
From Devil’s Promenade:
I peered through the snow-dusted windshield at the large house looming in the evening dusk, and an unwarranted shiver of foreboding washed over my flesh.
From behind the wheel, my driver, Rita, made a sound that was somewhere between a squeak of trepidation and a sigh of admiration. “It’s huge. And gorgeous, but kind of creepy, don’t you think?” Her eyes were big and round behind the lenses of her black cat-eye frames.
“It is indeed.” The sprawling structure was a combination of Southern plantation and Greek revival architecture; painted white and trimmed in a darker colored molding—perhaps forest green. The exact color was difficult to make out in the descending dusk. Narrow, darkened floor-to-ceiling windows peeked from between a portico of six Doric columns. Hanging by chains above the porch, a wooden board flapped in the icy wind. Spook Light Bed and Breakfast. The sign should have been welcoming, yet apprehension clawed at my heart.
Might as well get over that silliness. This would be my home for the next two weeks while I learned all I could about the Hornet Spook Light. The phenomenon, also known as the Tri-State Spook Light, Joplin Spook Light, Devil’s Jack-O-Lantern, and a few other nicknames, had supposedly been spotted multiple times over the last few centuries in this area, at the border of Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. I was here to do research for my book—The Myth of Otherworldly Occurrences. I chuckled and rolled my eyes. The only thing otherworldly about this place was its location thousands of miles from my warm, sunny home in Florida.
I gave a brief reason for her being there, but I didn’t say that her fiancé had jilted her for her sister, that she’s always wanted to be a writer, that she actually wanted to write novels, but had ended up writing non-fiction. That the flight to Oklahoma was smooth, except for the annoying man who sat next to her and talked loudly on his phone the entire time and smelled of garlic, that she didn’t have many friends, that she’d written several books already about various supposed supernatural phenomenons, that she was in the business of debunking them, what kind of childhood she had, etc, etc. Some, but not all, of those facts are sprinkled in later. Readers don’t want to know them just yet.
From Without Mercy:
China Beckett darted a glance across the bank lobby toward the front door. What were the odds she could escape undetected?
Not good, she decided. Even if she managed to slip out without being seen, her absence would be noticed. And Sophie would have an aneurysm.
Did she want to be a lousy employee or a lousy mother?
The choice was simple. She rose from her desk and headed past the teller line toward Sophie’s office.
“Everything okay?” China’s best friend, Vanessa Hanson, said from behind her desk.
This establishes China in her normal world, and in just a few pages, it explodes, almost literally. I didn’t go into detail about how she came to be a single mother, how she got the job at the bank, how long she’s been there, what she liked and didn’t like about it, how she’d met Vanessa, what had happened in the days leading up to now, etc. Again, I sprinkle that in as needed, much of it in dialogue. Which brings me to another point, you don’t have to provide details about characters’ history and/or traits in narrative. You can do that in dialogue, which readers often find more engaging. You don’t want to do it in an obvious way, unnatural way, such as, “China, you know your daughter Emma, whose father died while you were pregnant with her? Her asthma is really bad, isn’t it?” 🙂 Reveal it in a more natural and logical way.
But, getting back to backstory. It’s difficult to strike the perfect balance, and I certainly don’t succeed all the time, or even most of the time. The trick is to be aware and try to only share the details that matter at that moment. Save the rest for later, if it’s needed at all.
Try this…go through your story and highlight any section that is not in real time. If your story is riddled with highlights, and if the highlights are in the early pages, you might want to trim and/or move those paragraphs around.
Until next time…Happy Writing!
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*** If you would like to send me a few sample pages (around 7500 words or so, even though I will not edit that many on the blog. It just gives me more to choose from) for me to edit and share on an upcoming blog post, please do so in the body of an email to AliciaMDean@aol.com. Please use the subject line: “Blog Submission” This is for published or unpublished authors. In the email, please include whether you would like me to use your name or keep it anonymous, and whether or not you would like me to include any contact info or buy info for your books. Also, you can let me know if you would like for me to run my edits by you before posting on the blog. Please keep in mind, this is for samples to use for blog posts. I will not edit or use samples from all the submissions I receive, but I will use as many as possible.
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Wanting to write and actually doing it are two very different things. I am well acquainted with the sometimes grueling process of churning out a story. Over the years, I have tried many methods for creating and completing manuscripts, and have tweaked and honed it down to a workable (for me) process.
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9 responses to “Tuesday Two-Minute Writing Tip – The Backstory Conundrum”
You are so right–still–it is a conundrum, especially when writing a series. When and how much to reveal of the back, back, back story when volume precedes volume? Nice examples!
I always look forward to these great tips!
Question, dear Alicia. Here’s one I once labored over–the pros and cons of prologues as backstory. As I recall (my recalling is always sketchy), prologues were more often frowned upon than not. But when essential backstory existed that might be difficult to drop in somewhere along the line or happened so far in the past, I gave it a chance. And, yes, I know some readers simply skip over prologues but… Your thoughts?
That is an excellent question. In my opinion, there should be no blanket rules about prologues and such. If a prologue is engaging and well-done and the info is necessary, I am all for them. Sometimes, they are not. I think it should be a case by case decision. But, if an author is tempted to ‘tell’ all the details in an info dump that they could ‘show’ in a prologue, I much prefer a prologue. Not exactly a cut and dried answer, is it? 🙂
Thanks, Alicia. And so it was. “A case by case decision”–but I definitely concur that if “an author is tempted to ‘tell’ all the details in an info dump that they could ‘show in a prologue”–then prologue it is. I don’t think there is a “cut and dried” for this conundrum. 🙂
I agree! 🙂
Love this column. Sorry I’m late. There’s a fine line between dumping the reader in the middle of the action and knowing enough about the character to care. Now I can see your 1st example (Jonathan) drawn out with all the crappy things that had been going on then–wham–end the chapter with the guy holding a gun on him. I think that would be hilarious. Of course, I do have a warped sense of humor. 🙂
My biggest pet peeve! ::and yes I can have more than one “biggest” pet peeve:: Thanks for sharing, Alicia!