The Thing About Backstory…

What is backstory? Authors use backstory, or a characters past to explain a character’s motivation. I love a good backstory and if you want to see backstory done right, check out any of Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie series. I would recommend starting with the beginning  with THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE. And while backstory is entertaining and informative it can also kill a story.

I’m in the middle of judging entries for my local RWA chapter’s contest and I can see that there a lot of talented writers out there and I genuinely enjoy reading others work, but the thing that really hurts a story for me is poor pacing. A slow start.

 It’s the author’s job to grab the reader by the throat and never let them go until the book is finished. The way to do that is to start the story off with a bang. But some authors make the rookie mistake of wanting to throw up all the information in the first chapter. I know this from experience. I used to do this. But that drags the story down and when you get to the middle you find that you’ve got no place to go.

We don’t need to know everything about your hero or heroine in the first five pages. Readers like a little mystery. They like things to unfold. They want to savor the words. 

I’ve heard different advice of how to correctly write backstory, including don’t add any in for the first hundred pages. I wouldn’t follow that advice. You have to write the story that works for you. I would use this analogy. Write like you would use seasoning on your food. You wouldn’t dump an entire shaker of salt on your chicken before you had your first bite. Right? Then don’t dump an entire novel’s worth of backstory in the the first chapter. Trust me it will only bore readers.

Here are some tips that I like to look at from time to time from Story Sensei, Camy Tang, who says it way better than I ever could .

Some rules for backstory:

You want to make the reader WANT to know the past.

a–Keep it short. Cut ruthlessly. Include it only if you’re absolutely certain the reader would be completely lost without the information.

b–Dole out the information in bits and pieces, not all at once in one scene. Create mystery that motivates your reader to keep reading to find out what happened.

For example, mention a clue in chapter one, then another piece of the past in chapter five, another in chapter seven and finally write a sentence in chapter twelve that helps all the clues make sense and complete the picture.

c–Make a character absolutely need the information for some reason. Their desperate goal will keep the reader interested.

d–Make that person have to fight to get the information. Create conflict that tries to prevent the character from finding out what they need to know. Let the witness be slippery or reluctant. Make obstacles for the character, and the reader will be drawn into his fight to find out the information.

e–Tie the information to some type of action going on. For example, if I see a young girl killing two boys, speaking a haunting incantation, and demanding they tell her where her doll is, then I’m more likely to want to know why she’s doing this.

f–Create situations where another character needs to know the information. If the girl saying the incantation accidentally summons a genie, the genie is naturally going to want to understand what’s going on.

g–Give the backstory from the deep point of view of the character affected by it the most. For example, an omniscient narrator explaining the girl’s lost doll isn’t going to have as much impact as the psycho-chick reminiscing about how she stayed awake nights, longing for her Raggedy Ann.

h–Make sure it’s realistic. Don’t let someone talk about something they wouldn’t normally talk about. For example, most normal people don’t spill the town’s darkest secrets to strangers at the diner. Even a crazy girl isn’t going to confess to the police officer that she’s going to kill the Hardy Boys that night.
So what do you think? How do you like your backstory?


10 thoughts on “The Thing About Backstory…”

  1. Hmmm, Casey. I can’t believe you don’t talk about town secrets with strangers. What kind of character would you make?

    Okay, probably a good once. Sheesh…making me learn all the time 🙂

    Great post!

  2. Great tips, Sugar. It took me a long time to learn how to weave in backstory rather than doing the dreaded info dump in the first couple of chapters. My editors both nailed me on this and told me that my stories usually start at about chapter three. That was a kick in the pants but it was an excellent way for me to then take the information from those first three chapters and find ways to weave the information throughout the rest of the book. Now i just do this on my own. All the lovely description and backstory I’m tempted to give up front gets thrown into a file and I draw from it as needed.

    1. If I think what I am writing is beautifully written it means I probably have to go back and cut stuff out.

      1. Haha! So true. Almost like – the more I love it, the more likely it is to wind up on the cutting room floor. Love this post!

  3. Excellent post Sugar. It takes a while to understand how to keep your readers turning those pages, but when it comes, weaving in back story great tool to layer and juice up a story.

  4. Sugar, you are the best. I’ve been judging the Write Stuff Contest, and wish I could transport your info onto my comment page for many of the entries. Backstory can sure kill an opening to a navel..

    1. Great Post, Sugar!
      This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. I tend to want to tell everyone’s history right away, lol. A bit of mystery does go a long way in storytelling. I love the analogy you used likening back story to seasoning food.

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