How to wield back story with panache

How soon can you tell readers your characters’ backgrounds? Most writers are in too much of a hurry. Here’s how to deploy back story with confidence

We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.

That’s back story.

Here are the two main problems with back story.

  1. Most writers fling it in too early.
  2. Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.

Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.

So how do you judge when is the right time?

First woo your reader

Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.

In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?

This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.

Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.

So where do you put it?

I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.

Cut it all out

I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.

Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.

Make the back story part of the action

What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.

Leave it as late as possible

As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.

Use back story as bonding material

As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.

So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.

Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.

Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!

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  1. #1 by Stacy Green on July 3, 2011 - 7:51 pm

    Roz! Thanks so much for posting this. My critique partner pointed out I was info dumping my back story, and I was thrown for a loop. I guess I knew it in the back of my mind, but once it was laid out I was all panicky. Thankfully my critique partner has shared a ton, and this posts helps even more. I really like your analogy of approaching it like you do when meeting new people. That really makes it much easier.

    I tend to be very literal and want to know every detail about every situation, and I think that’s why I fell into the back story trap. But it definitely works better in bits and pieces, and I’m learning how to do that.

    Thanks for this post!

    • #2 by rozmorris on July 3, 2011 - 8:40 pm

      Thank YOU, Stacy – a great question. And it’s something that’s so hard to judge. Good luck with your revisions.

      • #3 by Stacy Green on July 3, 2011 - 8:58 pm

        You’re welcome. It’s coming along well thanks to the help of my critique partner. :)

  2. #4 by lynxchild on July 3, 2011 - 8:26 pm

    This is fantastic advice. I am currently working on the second draft of a writing project and I’ve done a lot of back story and worldbuilding. I’ve been really struggling with how to work it into the story in a way that isn’t clunky. You’ve given me a different way to think about it. Thanks for posting.

    • #5 by dirtywhitecandy on July 3, 2011 - 8:42 pm

      Thanks, Lynxchild! Remember you don’t have to get everything in. What you don’t use as words in the text is still adding depth to your understanding. And in these days of author websites, you can always put it in your ‘extras’…

  3. #6 by Carol Riggs on July 3, 2011 - 8:33 pm

    Cool photo! I like the idea of “wooing” the reader and dribbling that backstory out. Nice analogy to a real life acquaintance. I have to remember that! ;o)

    • #7 by dirtywhitecandy on July 3, 2011 - 8:43 pm

      Thanks, Carol! Keep ‘em guessing as long as you can – without confusing them, of course…

  4. #8 by Roxanne on July 3, 2011 - 9:57 pm

    I’ve definitely struggled with dumping too much backstory in one chunk. Fortunately members of my critique group called me on it and I am far more conscious of it. This is a wonderful reminder and you’ve offered some excellent suggestions on how to incorporate backstory organically rather than having it feel forced. Thanks!

    • #9 by dirtywhitecandy on July 4, 2011 - 7:08 am

      Thanks, Roxanne. It’s amazing what you find you can hold back – and may not have to put in at all. And your story feels like it has greater depth as a result.

  5. #10 by Dave Morris on July 3, 2011 - 10:59 pm

    I’m just wondering what bits of Roz backstory you still haven’t told me :)

    Great post. I’d just add that the best uses of backstory are to advance the plot, illuminate character, develop the theme of the story – or all three. “Luke, I am your father…”

    • #11 by dirtywhitecandy on July 4, 2011 - 7:09 am

      As you said it was a great post, dearest, now is the time to tell you…

  6. #12 by Tony McFadden on July 3, 2011 - 11:36 pm

    In the lates I spent a few weeks writing detailed back stories for each of the main characters in their voice. Alternate chapters are in first person point of view of the heroine so I wrote her back story in first person. Since I was solid with the history I could release what was needed in interrogation scenes, dinner conversations, interviews the main character had with media (she’s an actress), ultimately releasing just enough to advance the story.

    THanks for another excellent post.

    • #13 by dirtywhitecandy on July 4, 2011 - 7:10 am

      Hi Tony – that sounds like a good plan. And if some pesky impulse tells you you need to write a fill-in scene, you’ve got the material ready to go.

  7. #14 by Sally on July 4, 2011 - 11:07 am

    “I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story …”

    What a brilliant idea. It’s a great way to test whether your characters and the story have succeeded in feeding the reader what they need to know without the dreaded ‘info dump’. I’ll definitely try that!

  8. #16 by Jody Moller on July 4, 2011 - 11:53 am

    I love the concept of pulling it all out and seeing how the story reads without it. That will be a technique I will have to try. I also find an issue with when to physically describe your characters. Alot of people day you need to to it early or the readers will come up with their own concept but sometimes it feels like the first few chapters are all ‘This is Bob. Bob has blond hair, blue eyes and a tyre of fat around his middle.’

  9. #18 by Jonathan Moore on July 4, 2011 - 1:33 pm

    Hi Roz,

    Good advice. I realise that it applies to my main supporting character, and his backstory can indeed be pulled out until much later, which would challenge the readers’ assumptions about his motives. Generally speaking it’s all too true – if I met someone and they started telling me their life story straight off I’d run a mile. In fact I think I’ve done that to other people while under the influence and they did look rather afraid… Hmm. Not just writing advice, but social skills for the unworldly. That could be your new strapline.
    I might add though, that this is why I think you and I disagree on pilot episodes and how superhero films are made – I’d rather the backstory/origins remained a mystery for a while, rather than dominate the narrative. This works well in the recently cancelled Human Target, which reveals tantalising glimpses of the hero’s past building up to the final episode of series one, which finally reveals the backstory.

    Cheers for now,
    Jonathan

    • #19 by dirtywhitecandy on July 4, 2011 - 7:53 pm

      Jonathan, as I said… so much of what works in storytelling is what works in life too…
      Ah, your point about our superhero disagreement… I don’t know Human Target, it sounds like I’d like it. Did they complete an entire series or has it been left hanging?
      My argument with most superhero series is that in the pilot they show the most remarkable story arc, and afterwards there is nowhere else to go. Rarely do they tease the arc out over the entire series, it’s all crammed into ep 1. If they did spread the story all the way to ep 13 (without getting ridiculous and contrived like Heroes) I’d like it your way.

      • #20 by Jeffrey Russell on July 4, 2011 - 10:26 pm

        I haven’t read all that many superhero stories, but do enjoy them as movies. And I think it cannot be handled better than the way it was done with the 1978 Superman movie. The entire first part of that movie is backstory. Superman (in his cape) doesn’t appear until the middle. And there is quite a long section to start the film that takes place on Krypton – before he even gets to Earth!

        As a credit to the writers though, some of the plot, and much of the character’s motivations are established in the first part and then subsequently intertwined with the rest of the movie. It also set up the premise for the sequel.

        • #21 by dirtywhitecandy on July 4, 2011 - 10:45 pm

          Also, it has to be said that although superhero pilots are generally back story for the series to come, the pilot episode is written as a story unfolding in real time. Not with loads of background (or the good ones aren’t anyway) – it’s paid out as a proper story.

      • #22 by Jonathan on July 5, 2011 - 1:22 pm

        The cancelled Human Target after series 2. It’s based on a DC comic, about an assassin turned bodyguard.

        • #23 by rozmorris on July 5, 2011 - 2:47 pm

          A DC comic? Dave is bound to know about this. Shall pick his brains.

  10. #24 by Markh on July 4, 2011 - 3:21 pm

    I’ve got way, way too much back-story in my first draft, but much of the story is about the secrets that the main-character carries around with him so there’s a lot backstory and exposition — and a whole wodge of flashbacks sitting in the middle of the second act. My philoophy was to whack it all in, as and when it seemed right — with the expectation that I’m going to have to have to take most of it out again at some point, and tickle and jiggle the rest into shape. Ah well, gotta be done.

    • #25 by rozmorris on July 4, 2011 - 7:49 pm

      Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out, Mark – maybe you need a dual timeline?

      • #26 by Markh on July 5, 2011 - 9:04 am

        A dual timeline?

        *Mark’s ears prick up*

        • #27 by rozmorris on July 5, 2011 - 2:46 pm

          Had a feeling that might happen…

  11. #28 by Alexander M Zoltai on July 4, 2011 - 4:10 pm

    Well-put, Roz; and, taken to heart :-)

  12. #30 by Jeffrey Russell on July 4, 2011 - 10:13 pm

    Hi Roz,

    With my first book I struggled quite a bit over backstory, and ended up rewriting it several times, even changing the story’s POV twice. But that story was developed in large part on-the-fly, with only a general idea of what plot elements would be the ones propelling the story forward. Figuring those out AND finding good ways (and places) to add in the backstory never worked out the way they needed to. Much as it broke my heart I had to put that one away in the drawer.

    With my second book I spent a LOT of time defining the characters and their motivations first, THEN outlined all the plot elements. Now that the writing has started I have a much better idea of when, why, and how to introduce backstory. It helps too that the book starts with the two main characters meeting each other, and much of the tension in the story is them trying to sort out their differences as they overcome one crisis after another, in order to come together at the end. So I’m pleased that backstory can be added in as the two of them learn it from each other.

  13. #31 by dirtywhitecandy on July 4, 2011 - 10:50 pm

    Hi Jeffrey – we live and learn, eh? I well remember starting a novel in a muddle and deciding there must be an easier way to do it than this!

  14. #32 by Krissy Brady, Writer on July 5, 2011 - 2:40 am

    Wonderful post, as usual Roz. Back story can be a complicated thing to integrate, but I don’t feel it has to be. As I get into the meat of any story, I begin writing down point form notes of certain traits my characters have, and I write the back story based on these points, integrating the back story only by actions or conversations the character has with others in the story. I create a separate list of back story items I have already mentioned, or need to delve into further; it helps me to keep the story accurate without “explaining” things, and gives readers something more to connect to.

    • #33 by rozmorris on July 5, 2011 - 6:51 am

      Thanks, Krissy! That method of yours sounds a wonderful way to allow character (and indeed other story elements) to develop organically wile still keeping control of them. Thanks for sharing it!

      • #34 by Krissy Brady, Writer on July 13, 2011 - 11:49 pm

        My pleasure! In the novel that I’m working on, the main characters are engaged to be married but have hit a rough patch–we only see from her point of view, so I’m using this technique a lot, because I need to explain their relationship’s chemistry without explaining it, lol! It’s challenging, but I’m really enjoying myself.

  15. #35 by jane@flightplatformliving on July 5, 2011 - 9:49 am

    how fabulous to have an insight into how you write! i found it fascinating! i have only this year realised i love writing and my little blog is becoming an obsession, so lovely to say hi to a ‘real’ writer. stopping by from the rdc linkup and glad i did x

    • #36 by rozmorris on July 5, 2011 - 2:47 pm

      Thanks, Jane, enjoy your new-realised love and thanks for coming over in a red dress!

  16. #37 by Deanna Schrayer on July 11, 2011 - 4:47 pm

    Fantastic article Roz! I often struggle with backstory in my shorts. I’ll be flying along and suddenly notice I have over 10K words, but then realize I haven’t even gotten to the point yet because I was so busy showing the characters’ lives to that point. Then I have to reread and remove that backstory, (which, inevitably is most of what I’ve written), and try to work just some of it in, since it is supposed to be a short.

    I find it hard to believe I’ve never thought about using backstory in the way you describe here – thinking of it as a real relationship. That seems like such an obvious strategy, but apparently it isn’t…else I would’ve thought of it. :) Thanks so much for this fabulous advice!

    • #38 by rozmorris on July 11, 2011 - 7:10 pm

      Thanks, Deanna! I have to admit I find short stories impossible because I start digging too far. Before I know it I’ve got 10k as well and way too much complexity. It’s definitely longform for me. Glad my advice helped – I find the more I think of storytelling as a relationship, the better the stories go!

  17. #39 by Rachel on July 12, 2011 - 2:08 pm

    Great post, and I agree with others who have said that the real-life-relationship analogy seems like a really smart metric for gauging the inclusion of backstory! My current story actually has too much mystery surrounding things in the past which are mostly not meant to be mysterious (the mysterious parts of the past take place in an earlier layer of backstory). Basically the mostly-non-mysterious part is an unusual and complicated family situation which I didn’t fully explain, instead jumping into the plot. A lot of the story is concerned with the growing-up of two main characters and their coming into their own after a happy but extremely sheltered upbringing. So the backstory of their childhood is very important and asserts itself often, sometimes taking over the story, while at the same time details of the timeline are murky. I am thinking of inserting a new second chapter which tells the story of their childhood. I will see if I can apply your analogy of meeting a new acquaintance!

    • #40 by rozmorris on July 12, 2011 - 10:44 pm

      Thanks, Rachel! Your story with its mystery layers sounds like a familiar problem. I had a similar situation with Life Form 3, and decided to strip everything off and rebuild it – because it was simply too hard for the reader to follow. But that’s not the right solution for everyone. However, we often make stories more complicated than they need to be.

  18. #41 by Rachel on July 12, 2011 - 2:09 pm

    PS. Question: in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, would the story of Laura and Iris’s childhood be considered backstory, or is it something more? I am wondering if in my story I need a new way to think about my characters’ childhood, not just as backstory but something more like the role of the childhood story from The Blind Assassin.

    • #42 by rozmorris on July 12, 2011 - 10:45 pm

      Rachel, I’m afraid I can’t be much help to you there as I haven’t read The Blind Assassin (although it’s on my reading list). Can anyone else help?

    • #43 by Rachel on July 13, 2011 - 6:51 pm

      Thanks for the reply! I have simplified some things and maybe will need to do more, let’s see! I definitely know that I don’t want any *more* mysterious threads…and I am trying to make sure the ones that I have fit together! The first pass might be followed by a stripdown!

  19. #44 by Laura Pauling on July 13, 2011 - 11:10 am

    Great advice. I often have the opposite problem. I don’t put in enough backstory. Often I have to add a bit in here and there so my readers aren’t confused.

    • #45 by rozmorris on July 13, 2011 - 10:30 pm

      That’s tricky, Laura. And difficult to tell if you need to add more without outside input.

  20. #46 by Jeree Petrie on July 25, 2011 - 12:42 pm

    Brilliant advice! I’ve just recently found this out for myself when trying to tidy up a troublesome and clunky first chapter. I just dumped the whole explanation of how my main character got to where he is at at the beginning of the book and realised – with quite a shock – that it didn’t make any difference whatsoever to the sense and flow of the story! I was quite relieved in a way since the whole enterprise is already about five times longer than it should be and I’m only three quarters of the way through. Then I saw that when I introduced the second character I’d given such a huge chunk of back story that it amounted to a short story all by itself – then had trouble finding much to say about him later on. Now I’ll definitely feed his story in a bit at a time. I feel as if I’ve got a new tool to use now!

    • #47 by rozmorris on July 25, 2011 - 2:14 pm

      Jeree, that is so easily done! But in these days of author websites, you can keep the bits you never reused and post them as extras. Good luck!

  21. #48 by becsmog on July 26, 2011 - 12:18 am

    Really interesting post. I am wondering, though, is there always a need to include a backstory? Does it depend on the story?

    Interestingly, I just started reading a book where a character’s entire backstory, or so it seemed, was dumped in the first chapter. It made for tiresome reading and, for a thriller, left the ‘event’ far too late in coming. Needless to say the book is back on my ‘to read’ pile.

    • #49 by rozmorris on July 26, 2011 - 7:24 am

      What you’re describing is exactly the kind of info-dump that we need to avoid. But good question about going the other extreme and not needing it at all. I think it is needed, because unless you start the story on day one of the character’s life, there will always be a past and that past will always contain something relevant to the story events. When back story is done well, though, it doesn’t feel like an indigestible wodge. It feels like the things you were dying to know.

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