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Friday, August 05, 2005

How To Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep

Backstory, or a character's past, is often necessary to explain a character's motivations. It can add insight on personality or create reader sympathy.

However, you should try not to present it in the first chapter. When opening a novel, your reader cares more about what's going on right now than what happened in the past. At the start of a book, the reader isn't invested enough in the character to care about what happened to them previously, but later in the story, the reader will be intrigued enough by the character to want to know. As a writer, you need to be careful when and how you bring backstory into the story.

When you do need to present backstory, there are several ways:

1--Flashback. This is a scene remembered by a character and written out as if it were happening again.

She closed her eyes. Suddenly she was twelve years old again. The Hardy Boys ran away, dangling her Raggedy Ann doll in their grubby hands.

"Stop!"

They only laughed at her and ran faster, tripping over the woodpile but righting themselves before they hit the wooden fence. Up and over, and they were gone.

She opened her eyes. She wasn't twelve anymore, and John Hardy was going to give her doll back to her.

2--A discussion about the past action. This is basically a flashback in dialogue form, but don't make it too obvious. It should be absolutely fascinating to the reader for some reason apart from the information being conveyed. One of the characters should need to know the information in a bad way, for a dire reason.

This should be kept short. Shorter than short. Not just the amount of page dedicated to the conversation, but also keep the dialogue lines short. No long speeches from any characters.

The psychiatrist scribbled in his notebook. "So the Hardy Boys took your doll?"

"They ran away across the yard and hopped over the west side fence. I never saw Raggedy Ann again."

"How did you feel about that?"

"I dreamed of her at night, calling to me. I need to get her back."

"Now? How do you intend to do that?"

"I'll kill them in their sleep, and say the incantation over their dead bodies to force them to tell me what they did with her."

The psychiatrist leaned back. Yup, she was a French fry short of a Happy Meal. No way could she testify.

3--Summary of past action. This is narrative explaining what happened so the reader can get caught up.

Her entire body went still as she watched John Hardy walk down the hallway. When she was twelve, he and his brother had stolen her Raggedy Ann doll from her arms, hopped over the west side fence, and escaped into the wood. The loss had traumatized her.

Keep it short, or try to incorporate the information in dialogue if you can. Also ask yourself if your reader really needs this information in order to enjoy the story. Be ruthless about what to cut--your reader isn't stupid.

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.

Exercises:

1. Is your backstory absolutely relevant?

2. Is your backstory short?

3. Is your backstory broken up or inserted all at once?

4. Is there a dire reason for a character to need the information?

5. Is there conflict preventing the information from coming to light?

6. Is the information tied to some type of action?

7. Can you create a situation where someone needs to know the information?

8. Is the backstory given from the point of view of the character with the most to lose?

9. Is the backstory realistically and believably conveyed by the character?

Next: The Sagging Middle

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

3 comments:

  1. So Is it ok to like start without something boring like 'Johnny was at home and his mommy was making cake but he couln't have any because she was missing sugar so he got mad and told his daddy and thats Johnnys Family and they live in a trailer'
    what if Instead you start with Johnny with a gun pointing it at his friend, threatening to kill him.. and then fill in the entire backstory in little situational spurts, that aren't quite flashbacks, but are aids to seeing why the characters thought processes are working that way.... because i detest flashbacks... ooor does that go against the show and tell thing mentioned in deep POV? because I really hate deep POV anyway... I don't like to talk like my character when i decribe things... my characters have bad grammar... and well... for example... I hated reading robinson crusoe with a passoin... it depleted my witing skills temporarily... anyways soorry i ramble, but im in a hurry...
    laters

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  2. this was very helpful!
    but im still a little lost.
    what if im trying to hand out to the audience the main characters backstory, bit by bit?
    my main character has a tragic past, and has a decent amount of things that happened to her.
    but i use it as a way to interest the audience, because they want to find out about her past, if you get me.

    could he give me an example as to how i could approach that?

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's fine to do just that--give hints to the readers to interest them in the character. If you can do that in a clever ways (versus narrative that "tells" the reader about the character), that would be best. "Telling" narrative tends to slow the story down, especially in the first three chapters.
    Camy

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