Thursday, September 23, 2010

Backstory....errrr...Back to the Story

Blogging at New Kids on the Writer's Block today. (Reposted)

Backstory is what happened to your characters before the story begins. As writers, we labor over each important detail of their lives. It’s a birthing process and when our babies emerge fully grown we feel the need to share every little detail.

While we may love the backstory, a reader doesn’t. At least not in chunks big enough to choke Rottweiler. Historical information is passive and diverts attention from the present.  That’s not to say that backstory isn’t important. It is. The challenge is in giving enough information without boring the reader.

When wading through the mire of backstory dumps, the reader may give into distractions. Skim ahead. Or….Aaack! Put the book down.

To keep the story moving forward and avoid slowing the pace, bits of the character’s past can be introduced through dialogue. This keeps the reader engaged as the story unfolds. Show character reactions through body language as they disclose those past secrets or learn of them.

Write tight. Avoid unnecessary words and fillers. Keep the backstory active. Include only what the reader must ABSOLUTELY know. Eliminate the interesting tidbits if they aren’t important to the present story.

Margie Lawson, in her Deep Editing online workshop, suggests creating a separate file on the backstory. For your eyes only. Keep it brief, though. Highlight what’s critical for the reader to know in order to understand the story. Put those important details on a fresh page. Then, slip pieces of this information into the first third of the book. Keep it active using dialogue and be careful of relying on history for present motivations. Characters need fresh stimulus and responses to keep the story current.

After all that work on character development, it’s tough to whittle the juicy details to bare bones. So, how do you handle presenting backstory without snoozing and loosing the reader?

~kristal lee

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Rebecca Lynn said...

I definitely shy away from backstory. In fact, I usually get comments from people that they want MORE context in my first chapters. I'd rather have it that way than the other. I figure, it's always easier to add in back story than to take it out.

In fact, I recently had a full request from a Harlequin editor. She said that she loved the first chapter, but could I put in a few more details about the character's context, just so she could get her bearings before she moved on to the second chapter. Not that she was complaining. :-) That was funny. I added in just a few things, but not many.

But I have to say, when I was a brand new author, I made the back-story mistake worse than anyone. In fact, I got a judged entry back from my very first contest (besides the GH, of course, which doesn't give you feedback), and one judge had completely erased the first twelve pages of my entry! Every other paragraph, she wrote the word "BACKSTORY" in capital letters. :-)

But she was right. My story didn't really start until the middle of page 13. And now, that's where it starts. :-)

Great post, Kristal.
September 23, 2010 7:11 AM

Sarah Hoss said...

For my first book I wrote, I had way too much back story. I chopped the first two chapters and started fressh. I weaved the back story in through out the book.

Rebecca and I have a similar story! I am hoping that the way I have worked it, the book is now better then ever!

CONGRATS Rebecca on the request!
September 23, 2010 8:23 AM

Lindi Peterson said...

Congrats on the request, Rebecca. That's awesome.

I still have a backstory issue at times I must say. Even as long as I've been writing.
It may be a comfort thing. But at least now I can pick it out---then take it out---before people see it.

Thanks for the reminder post!
September 23, 2010 6:45 PM

Carla Gade said...

My precious backstory! To avoid those info dumps I try to share it in dialague or introspection. But I also know that because I've taken some time in creating it, my characters will become better developed. Those little things that make a character seem real, or a setting become like a character - coming to life. It was hard to get used to the idea that I couldn't just write it straightforward, but now I know how to weave it into the story to make it richer, fuller.
September 23, 2010 10:13 PM

Lynn said...

Room gets quiet... I step up to the mic..."Hi, I'm Lynn and I'm a backstory Junkie..."

From the comments, I'm in the right room. I cut an entire set up scene from my current ms because my critique group told me my story started page three. So all of those facts got woven into the first chapter.

But I like starting slow...

Great job on the full request Rebecca!!!!
September 25, 2010 5:07 AM

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