So far, you’ve been learning about many different and awesome ways to plot your novel. Some of you may be pantsers, rather than plotters, so you go about plotting another way.
Maybe you need to write the whole way through the novel before you realize what it’s about. In that case, you’re probably hesitant to stop your creative flow by putting plot ideas down on paper. If that’s your writing method, this exercise will be helpful once you have your first draft down on paper. For those who have been busy plotting, you can use this after you’ve written your first chapters, but it can also be helpful to think about while you plot.
Most editors suggest you avoid backstory in the first three chapters of a novel. That can be hard to do. After all, you need to give your readers important information about your character’s past, and – let’s be honest here, especially if you’re a pantser – you as the writer need to get to know your character and his/her motivation. What better way to do that than to write? So go ahead and spew all that on paper, but then come back here for to clean it up.
What is backstory?
Backstory is anything that happened before the book begins. It may be the character’s childhood, family troubles, recent romantic breakups, health challenges, personal traumas, or even what your character had for breakfast. Backstory is vital because incidents in the character’s past create the motivation for present decisions and actions. It’s to figure out your characters’ pasts, what motivates them, the cruelties they endured in childhood, their secret pain and embarrassments—the list is endless. The more you know about the characters life, the more fleshed out that character will be on the page. So spend time discovering all those details. But all of this information doesn’t need to go into the book.
Pitfalls of Backstory
We’re often told to be sure our first few pages grab an editor’s or agent’s attention. So we write a compelling hook and a gripping opening scene, enticing readers into the story. But readers also want to stay involved in the action and keep moving ahead to find out what happens next. With backstory, they’re pitched backward in time as action stops for an explanation of a character’s motivation. Many writers believe they need backstory so readers understand their protagonist’s predicament, and they proceed to explain, often in great detail. Whenever that occurs, readers are diverted from the main storyline. Any time you ask readers to back up in time, you risk losing their attention. And loading the first chapters with backstory slows the plot.
Authors generally insert backstory in four ways (blue denote backstory):
1) Throwaway Lines: These quick asides are tacked on as a narrative sentence or phrase, often they’re found in a character’s thoughts.
Jenny laughed at Easton’s jokes. They reminded her of the way Dad teased her when she was small.
Ever since Amy arrived at Hadley High last year, Allison had made life miserable. And today was no different.
2) Longer Blocks of Information: Sometimes writers include several sentences or even paragraphs or pages that tell about the past. It’s often in narrative form.
Remembering Joel Anderson’s comments to Mrs. Kintz yesterday, Megan smiled. He’d asked the teacher if they really had to do this crappy homework. Only he didn’t use the word “crappy,” so he’d gotten sent to the principal’s office.
3) Dialogue: Writers often believe that if it’s between quotation marks it won’t be boring. Not so. This can be particularly dangerous if it leads to info dumps (extra information added that the character already knows but the reader doesn’t.).
“Guess what happened at the party after you left. Katia and Iris got into a fight.”
“So, Liam, remember when your girlfriend Jenna went into the hospital for her torn ACL, and we ran into her best friend Aida, who goes to East High, in the lobby?” (This is a combination of backstory and an info dump.)
4) Flashbacks: Turning backstory into scenes makes it more interesting, but sometimes it’s better to show flashbacks in real time as they’re actually happening. If you have large sections of backstory that are exciting scenes, you may want to think about backtracking and starting the story sooner.
Seeing Caitlyn’s sly smile, Eva’s mind flashed back to yesterday.
Caitlyn had grinned at her the same way. “So, Eva, tell us about your big plans for getting Leland to go to the dance with you.” Her voice was so loud it carried across the cafeteria.
Everyone turned to stare at Eva, and she sank lower in her seat, her face burning. That was supposed to be a secret. Leave it to Caitlyn to broadcast it to the whole school.
Even worse, the guys at Leland’s table elbowed him and snickered. “You’re going with Eva Hollowell? Seriously?”
Eva knew what they were thinking. Who’d want to go out with a loser like her?
Reasons for Adding Backstory
- Clearing your throat
One of the main reasons authors have large backstory dumps in the first few chapters is that they’re feeling their way to the start of the story. Getting started is difficult, so they take all the information they have and start writing. They’re learning about their characters as they write. This is particularly a problem for pantsers who do little preplanning and figure out plot as they go along. If you write this way, you have to be ruthless about chopping backstory out of your first few chapters.
- Not trusting the reader
Many writers think they need to explain everything. They tell how characters are feeling, what they’re thinking, why they’re feeling the way they are. It’s amazing how little readers really need to know to understand what’s happening. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much information to include, so it’s always best to have a critique group or partner who will be honest with you. And keep reminding yourself that readers are great judges of body language, and they can figure things out quite well without any over-explaining.
- Trying to pack in all the information you have about the character
OK, you’ve done a ton of work on your character’s backstory. You know everything from when they lost their first tooth to their latest blood pressure reading. Now you want your readers to know it too, so you load the details into the story. Or you’ve researched a fascinating profession or family history, so all that gets dumped in. Remember Hemingway’s famous advice that writing is like an iceberg. The high points are all that should show above water. Keep the rest submerged. Choose only the most essential details to reveal character. Most should be shown through action and dialogue (in present time).
- Not understanding the purpose of backstory
Backstory is not to take readers on a tour through your character’s past. Every piece you insert has to have several goals, which we’ll explore below, but its main purpose is to always move the story forward and contribute to the plot. Readers don’t care about memories that have nothing to do with the present action and that don’t move the story along.
- Trying to explain a character’s action/reaction
This goes back to trusting the reader. How much does the reader need to know to understand the present situation? Often it’s enough just to see the character in action. If you show a character overreacting to a situation, you raise questions in your readers’ minds: Hmm, what’s that all about? If you then proceed to tell the readers why, it spoils the mystery and intrigue that keep readers guessing and reading on.
- Give your characters secrets.
If you reveal all about their pasts, readers have no reason to keep turning pages. The mystery behind why a character acts the way s/he does is one of draws to entice people to keep reading. If you take that incentive away, you lose readers’ attention.
Using Backstory Well
Backstory can be used effectively. The trick is knowing when and how to insert it into the story. Here are some tips for when including backstory makes sense:
- The character is doing something totally out of character, and it’s vital for readers to understand why.
- It moves the story along and gives an added dimension.
- The story doesn’t make sense without it.
- It’s brief.
- It’s used to reveal a secret that surprises the reader at a key point. (Just remember, you need to set this secret up early in the novel and embed clues to it in the character’s personality.)
The key skills for adding backstory are to be selective and to use restraint. Always remember that you don’t want to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, you want to increase it.
Exercise for Eliminating Backstory
- Highlight all the backstory in the first few chapters of your manuscript.
- Read the manuscript without the highlighted parts.
- Does it make sense? (You might need to add a few transitions to smooth things out if you’ve highlighted large chunks.)
- If it does make sense, consider cutting those sections from your manuscript.
Don’t be shocked if you find you’ve highlighted most of the words. If this is an early draft, it’s not unusual to find you’ve cut almost all of your first few chapters. As an editor, I’ve sometimes asked writers to eliminate the first 3 (or even the first 5) chapters because that’s where the backstory ends and the story really starts. By cutting backstory, you’ll discover the plot moves along more quickly and becomes more interesting. If you have draggy sections later in a novel, check them for backstory too.
So, does your manuscript work better with your backstory cut? If you’re not sure, ask a friend or critique partner to read both versions. And we’d love to hear your results of using this exercise.
A former teacher and children’s librarian, Laurie J. Edwards completed her MA from Vermont College while raising five children and is now in her final year of the Hollins University MFA in Children’s Writing and Illustrating. In addition to having more than 2200 articles and 20 books in print or forthcoming, she also juggles freelance editing and illustration careers. Her 2015 releases include Her Cold Revenge (Book two in the YA WANTED series set in the Wild West, written as Erin Johnson; Switch Press), Imperial China, West African Kingdoms, and Ancient Egypt (Cengage), a story in the anthology Love & Profanity (Capstone), and illustrations for two picture books, The Teeny Tiny Woman and The Forget-Me-Not Keeper. She also writes adult novels under several pseudonyms. Find out more online about Laurie J. Edwards or on Facebook / Twitter @LaurieJEdwards
Laurie is giving away an autographed hardcover of Grace & the Guiltless, the first book in the YA Western series. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win her book, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
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