Monday, June 23, 2008


Camy here. I wanted to talk about something I’ve been seeing recently in the contest entries I’ve judged and the freelance editing jobs I’ve had this year.


Backstory, for me, is any kind of “telling” about something that happened at any time but the present moment of the story.

For one, the “telling” aspect of backstory jolts me right out of that lovely fictional dream. Most of the time, “telling” backstory also disrupts some really interesting dialogue and I don’t want to read some paragraph of narrative—I want to get back to the conversation!

For example:

She opened the door.

“Jake.” The name burst from her mouth, almost like an expletive. Her blood pulsed at the base of her throat, blocking her windpipe with its rapid-fire tempo. She was going to pass out—she gasped in a bolus of air.

He smiled, highlighting the dimple on his left cheek. “Hey, darling.” He leaned more against the doorframe so that he towered over her.

She shuddered, but couldn’t get her feet to move backward. “What are you doing here?”

“Come to see my favorite girl.”

He acted as if he hadn’t dumped her at the altar six years ago for his other “favorite girl,” her best friend, Marcy. She still remembered how devastated she’d been, waiting at the back of the church for a full thirty minutes after the ceremony was supposed to have started, trying not to cry and ruin her mascara, avoiding the gazes of her bridesmaids. Only to finally get a text message from him with the words, “Sorry, can’t marry you. Forgive me. Jake.”

A charcoal suddenly flared under her breastbone, and her hand whipped out, smacking his shoulder. “You slimeball. Go away and stop dirtying my porch.”

The boldface is backstory, in case you didn’t know.

It’s telling. Pure telling. It’s like sitting in the audience at a play and suddenly have one of the actors stop acting, turn to the audience, and start telling you what happened six years ago, and why she’s so surprised to see him.

You wouldn’t enjoy the play very much if that happened, would you?

At first glance, the backstory doesn’t seem too bad, does it? After all, it’s only a paragraph, and the reader needs to know why she’s upset at Jake, right?

Um…maybe not.

Why not eliminate the backstory entirely (now breathe…don’t hyperventilate…it’ll be all right, I promise) and create some mystery for your reader? Wouldn’t that be a more effective way to keep them reading?

She opened the door.

“Jake.” The name burst from her mouth, almost like an expletive. Her blood pulsed at the base of her throat, blocking her windpipe with its rapid-fire tempo. She was going to pass out—she gasped in a bolus of air.

He smiled as if six years ago hadn’t happened, highlighting the dimple on his left cheek. “Hey, darling.” He leaned more against the doorframe so that he towered over her.

She shuddered, but couldn’t get her feet to move backward. “What are you doing here?”

“Come to see my favorite girl.”

A charcoal suddenly flared under her breastbone, and her hand whipped out, smacking his shoulder. “You slimeball. Go away and stop dirtying my porch.”

In this example, the reader is asking, “What happened six years ago? What did he do to make her so mad? I’ve got to keep reading to find out!”

Some of you probably won’t agree with me, and that’s fine. But I do know from several published debut novelists that they eliminated as much backstory as they could when they submitted, and after they sold that manuscript, sometimes the editor would ask them to put some backstory back in.

My point is, personally, I’d rather have too little backstory and have my manuscript be contracted (but have the editor okay putting some backstory back in), than to have too much backstory and risk not being contracted at all because the editor thinks you have too much “telling.”

Anyway, that’s my take on things. Feel free to disagree!

Camy Tang is the loud Asian chick who writes loud Asian chick lit and romance. Her novels, Sushi for One? and Only Uni, are out now, and she runs the Story Sensei critique service. In her spare time, she is a staff worker for her church youth group, and she leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every Monday and Thursday, and she ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for monthly giveways!


Tina M. Russo said...

Oh I TOTALLY agree with you, Camy.But what I find on the contest circuit that is most annoying is judges who want it all up front and count you down for not giving them every iota of GMC.

So hopefully some of those judges are reading this.

Christy LaShea said...


Thanks, this was very informative. I struggle with this "issue" and it's nice to have an example to refer to.

I can see the difference in the 2 scenes. It was better without the backstory. It's just funny to read some authors that are multi-published and have been around for a while, they sometimes do this. Stick in the backstory where they please. They get away with it. Which I guess is a rite of passage when you're multi-published, widely read, you can share backstory if you want to...

For those of us "wannabes" we'll just have to suck it up and cut the backstory!

Ann said...

At least it's not like salt in the soup, where you can put it in but you can't take it out!

Interesting to think about more o less backstory how to apply it.

Is there more lee-way in historicals?

Cat Schield said...

While I agree with your opinion about backstory, I'm noticing that there's a lot of it going into the first chapter of books that I'm reading lately, and I have to wonder if that's less about poor writing and more about what some publishers are looking for. I'd say read the pubs you want to write for and see what their authors are doing before you make sweeping cuts to your story. Now contests, that's a whole different thing. And less is usually better.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Oh, Camy, I'm so excited!! I am learning...I'm actually getting this now!

As I read the first example, I immediately thought just give us the six years ago info, and then I read your fixed version and saw that you agreed. I like how you moved that little info up with his smile--so perfect.

You teach a lot in these little examples you offer. A big thank you!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Camy, great examples because you made the first one look A-okay and the second one is a great teaser.

But Tina makes a great point that for a contest you've got to be a little more upfront in the allotted pages and then you're in a conundrum which brings us back to pimping for contests and then editing for submissions.

Such a business.

And Cat, I agree with you, I'm seeing more and more back story in the opening chapters of established romance writers. Is it because they've already made the grade? Stylistic? Editor choice?

Don't know, but it doesn't bother me if it's well written and doesn't go on forever. You know. The established author tendency to FALL IN LOVE WITH THEIR OWN VOICE AND RESEARCH and go on and on ad nauseum.

Slippery slope we write.

Oh, hey, I brought oatmeal cake with broiled coconut topping. World's greatest can't get enough of it spice cake. Yum.

And a frothy cappuccino maker, heavy on the sweetness for the sugar-holics like me.


Missy Tippens said...

Camy, that was a great example! As a reader, I love to have that bit of mystery, a teaser of what's to come.

My editors haven't asked me to add in backstory. But they have asked me to add in more internal conflict up front. I think there's a subtle difference. I have to figure out how to show his emotions at returning home without dumping in backstory. Not so easy to do! :) I'm still working on it!


Mary Connealy said...

The think writes need to remember is you've really GOT to write that backstory. You need to know it yourself.
And then...throw it out.

I know, brutal.

I've heard it called interviewing your characters or making a character background sheet

you really do need to know it for you to write the book.

But what I've found out about backstory is once you've made it up, well, you made it up for a reason. You needed this detail and that event and whatever crisis so when the time comes in the book that you need it, you'll use it.
So putting in this big backstory dump is usually a duplicate. You write it to explain the story more to yourself than the reader, then you RE-USE it later when you needed it for the story. So you've repeated yourself.

So cut it! Maybe leak just a bit more of it into a contest entry, but for the book, get rid of it.

I'm learning to do that but it's so against the grain, because I want the reader to know everything I know.

One note: As part of brutally cutting all the backstory dump out of Petticoat Ranch, I noticed...after it came out...that I cut Clay's(hero)father's name.

I never put it back in anywhere, but I knew it.

So I named one of Clay and Sophie's sons Jared, after Clay's father but never told the reader Clay's father's name. It doesn't really matter but I look at that name now and it's a little strange, like I know something about baby Jared that no one else knows.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Mary, you've got the inside view on baby Jared, LOL!

And of course, on track as always. For your first post of the day, anyway, and hey, that's a solid beginning.

Yeah, you can't overwhelm the reader... SNORE.... Gotta keep 'em awake somehow.


Melanie Dickerson said...

That's right, Tina, there are some judges out there who expect you to tell them everything up front. That always makes me so mad! Or you show them some aspect of the character, and later they're saying, Why is the character doing this? And you're thinking, Well, duh, I already showed you why. How did you miss it?

But I digress.

I actually would put in just a few more words of backstory in the example Camy gave. I would have her thinking, How could he stand there and act as if six years ago didn't happen, as if he hadn't left me standing at the altar? The jerk. Otherwise, I would be afraid the reader might think he had robbed her at gunpoint, got her sister pregnant--I don't know, something really negative that would taint the way they felt about him too much.

Julie Lessman said...

Fun topic, Camy!! And I sooo totally agree with your point that the scene you gave us is so much better without the backstory.

With A Passion Most Pure, I got nailed by several judges for having backstory early on, but I really felt I needed to clue the reader in as to the depth of the heroine's feelings for the hero to help them understand why such a good girl would be attracted to such a bad boy. But the way I chose to present my backstory was in two flashback scenes with dialogue and action that I hope gives the reader a clear but exciting form of backstory.

But I do agree, only smidge of it should be used in the beginning and not to give away too much of the story and diminish the mystery, but only to deepen the tension or feelings a character might have.

Gina Welborn said...


Time and time again, I'm amazed at how many contest judges ding an entrant because she didn't undestand why the heroine slapped the hero.

If your example had been a contest entry, I feel confident that 95% of judges would say, "The reader needs to know what happened 6 years ago so the heroine's reaction to the hero is understandable. Put us in her head." And I think unpublished judges are the worst at wanting all the answers up front.

Call me crazy, but I like to not know all the answers or I'll figure out the book too soon. If the story is engaging, I'll trust the author to give me the answers at the right time.

I also think contest judges spend too much time analyzing a entry compared to just enjoying it. Read it first for pleasure. Don't make notes unless something totally kicks you out of the fictional dream. Then go back and read it as a judge.

Odds are the question you had on page one of what happened 6 years ago is answered or at least hinted at a few pages down the line.

A couple nights ago, I watched THE PRESTIGE with my oldest son. He said he was confused about a few things as the story went along. Instead of explaining, I told him to wait. Because he did, the payoff from understanding was bigger.

Having seen the movie already, when I watched it the second time, I saw exactly how the screenwriter and director gave the answers to the questions the viewer had. But the viewer chose to ignore what s/he HEARD and go with what the character on the screen believed.

If that movie was a contest entry, the thing would be blasted for not telling the reader the answers in a clear manner. In other words, no red herrings. Don't trick the reader.

Me, I like red herrings. I liked to be tricked. I like to figure out what's going on and hope I figure out correctly.

Ruthy, you do know coconut tastes like fried grasshoppers?

Great giblets, my word verification is Hemingway. No joke.



Gina Welborn said...

Back several months, Mary mentioned several of her contest entries having too much backstory. Well, that made me look at my story with fresh eyes. I ended up cutting the first 25 pages down to 18. I felt pretty good about that cut.

BTW, Mary hadn't been judging my entry.

Later I entered the tweaked version in another contest. One judge commented that she felt the scene went on a bit long and the heroine's motivation for her story goal wasn't clear.

I couldn't understand why the judge didn't realize xxx and xxx. But then it dawned on me, I knew things the judge didn't.

Ended up I cut a bit more backstory out but added another character into the scene to "show" the reader the heroine's motivation for her story goal.

What bothers me about backstory isn't the backstory.

It's when the author stops the current action of the story to convey information to the reader.

I just finished judging an entry this past weekend where the entrant did that continually. For example:

"What do you mean?" the heroine asked. yadayadayada about her feelings at the moment and why the hero is ticking her off and this goes on for two or three paragraphs

Hero finally answers.

This reminds me of Randy's MRU post.

Freezing other characters in the scene so the POV character can convey backstory information to the reader abrupts the natural movement of a MRU.

Tammy Doherty said...

I like the way Camy changed it - gets me wondering what happened. And if it was something like robbing her at gunpoint, I'd wonder how that's gonna effect the story? But I read suspense. Melanie's argument about putting in just a little bit more, to avoid the robbery thing, works for a shorter story. (like I know! - I'm not published, these are just my opinions as a reader)

I'd like to digress, maybe, and ask about Ruthy's advice on "pimping" a contest entry. Are you saying change your story beginnng for an entry? Fit in things that maybe aren't there in the "real" version? 'Cause I think a book is boring if I understand everything about the heroine & hero right off. I want to learn about them as the book progresses. But that seems to be the opposite of what contests are looking for. How can I tell you my character's GMC without dumping backstory (in such a short entry, I mean)?

Maybe Camy's & Ruthy's posts are related. If I were writing a single title suspense, I'd word it like Camy's example. But for a contest entry, I'd change the wording to be like Melanie's suggestion, to get in some GMC stuff.

Am I getting it? Or have I missed the mark on both points?

Tammy Doherty said...

Oh, and Mary, I didn't notice anything about you not telling Clay's father's name in Petticoat Ranch. But that's cool, you knowing something the rest of the world doesn't know! I wrote a story and at the end the couple named their son after the grandfather. I hadn't mentioned his name earlier, I just had the wife say "Let's call him Louis, after your father" (or something to that effect). Gets in the backstory without dumping it in earlier.

It's especially good to cut out backstory that you find interesting but does nothing for the story. Knowing Clay's father's name would explain why the baby is named Jared, but does nothing else for the story. So it's good you left it out. (IMHO!)

Tammy Doherty said...

I'm disagreeing with Gina on one point: I've gotten mostly good scores from unpub judges. The published ones seem "harsher" - and I choose to believe it's because they are repeating what they've been told by their editors.

Ann said...

Many moons ago I went to a writers' conference at our local Christian college and ended up in a drama class. I got the more out of that class than anything. Surprised me!

The prof said you "can't nail their feet to the floor," meaning a character can't freeze and go into paragraphs of "As you know, Bob ..." kinds of dialog. He also said that's hard to resist in Biblical and-or Christian stuff because we want to get the message in there.

That was a good visual for me.

More coffee, anyone?

Erica Vetsch said...

LOL, this post made me wince. My first ms is absolutely littered with Backstory, flashbacks, flash forwards, and in the words of Chevy Chase's wife in Funny Farm, I think there was even a flash sideways. LOL

I'm getting ruthless about culling the backstory. And my dear crit partners are helping. :)

Camy Tang said...

Tina, I totally hear you! That frustrates me too, because I have friends who get marked down just because their GMC isn't stated baldly in the first two pages! I admit, I do want at least a hint of the GMC, but it doesn't need to be obvious like that.

Christy, the reality is that some published authors can pretty much do whatever they want, including mediocre writing, simply because they're multipublished and award winning. Other times, it's the editor who asks an author to add in more backstory, if you can believe that! True! I've heard of several debut novelists whose editor asked them to add in more backstory after they'd eliminated as much of it as they could from their manuscript.

Ann, I think that in years past there was more leeway with historicals and speculative fiction stories, but these days, because competition is so fierce for unpublished writers, you've got to have writing that stands above the crowd, which usually means a well-paced story and smooth reading flow. Eliminating backstory contributes to the smooth reading flow.

Cat, you're right, because some publishers are okay with lots of backstory and telling, and it's a wise author who notices trends in the houses she's targeting. For my part, I tend to be the "better safe than sorry" camp and eliminate as much backstory as I can, and then let the editor tell me to add it back in.

Thanks, Eileen! Great minds think alike, right? :)

Ruthy, I agree with you that if it's well written, short, and not too often, I don't mind backstory as much, especially by a skilled author.

Missy, that's interesting you talk about adding more internal conflict. I think that's totally important to add in because it gets the reader more interested in the characters. Plus, you can add juicy internal conflict without adding backstory--which creates my mystery for the reader.

Mary, that's a good point that I forgot--as a writer, you need to know the backstory even if it doesn't get included in the story. And a cool marketing idea is to have a short story for your newsletter subscribers that incorporates that unused backstory into a neat story to entertain people who already love your characters. (Don't put the story on your blog, make people sign up for your newsletter so you get something out of it, too.)

Melanie, that's an option, although I would personally prefer more mystery. Most readers are going to figure out that their past is not something really bad if he can walk up to her door and she's not shooting him at first sight. The mystery of what he did will keep the reader reading to find out, which is what I would want. It's not what every writer would want, and it might not fit the purposes of another writer's story, but that's my personal preference.

Julie gives a good point--often a writer will have a very valid reason for including backstory. Just like sometimes I have a valid reason for "telling" instead of "showing" or going into distant POV rather than deep POV. It's totally up to each writer. My caution is for you have a good reason, like Julie mentioned--she was responding to confused reader feedback, which is a great reason to add some backstory.

Gina's hit the nail on the head in more than one issue--one, contest judges often ding people for lack of MRU, but my opinion is that those particular judges aren't very skilled judges/writers in the first place. Two, Gina found a more creative way to convey the backstory information to the reader without stopping the action to tell the reader all kinds of things about the character. This is exactly what I wish more writers would do.

Tammy, that's exactly what Ruthy means by "pimping" her contest entry. The reality is that you never know if you'll get a good judge or a non-so-well-informed judge in a contest. The NSWI judge will ding you for not flashing the GMC front and center on the first page, so you add a bit, like Melanie suggested, especially since the judge only has a few pages and the mystery created in the entry won't be answered within the entry. However, in submitting to an agent or editor, I'd cut as much backstory as possible so that I don't look unprofessional by having too much in there. I'd rather have a more compelling read for an agent/editor, since they tend to be more well-informed and harder than a contest judge.

Ann, I love that phrase--don't nail their feet to the floor!

Erica, crit partners are treasures! Mine flag all my instances of "telling" because I never see it myself.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Ann, I'll have some more of that coffee...

and Camster, you covered all the bases in one well-thought post so I'm going to put my feet up, sip my coffee and nibble some of this coconut topped oatmeal cake that has become today's addiction.

Somebody hide the scale, please.


Mary Connealy said...

I will add the thing I always add.

It's all about balance.

A LITTLE backstory. A LITTLE look at the conflict. A LITTLE look at why your feisty, man-hating heroine is likeable, A LITTLE glimpse of the heroic side of the arrogance, bossy, hostile hero.


Your book is a teeter totter and you're standing up in the middle trying to keep it level.

Good luck. No crash helmet's allowed.

Mary Connealy said...

Oh, about tweaking your entry for a contest, if you've never done this I recommend it.
A finished chapter is a funny thing. You're happy with it. You're finished...well, come unfinished. Don't be afraid to play with your own words.

Example from Book #3 for the Lassoed in Texas Series, Gingham Mountain. I didn't have the bad guys make an appearance until about 1000 maybe.

Okay, exaggerating but the beginning of the book, at least four chapters, is an unbroken action scene. No jumps to another location. No subplot in some other locale.
So I HAD to get that villain in there. Dumping the bad girl in at that late date just felt wrong, too much of an after thought.
I was at a writer's gathering and ended up in a brainstorming group with Judy Baer and I was talking about how that bad guy just had NO PLACE in this scene. I couldn't figure out how to get her in.

Judy just kind of gives me this great smile and says, "It's your book, you can make anyone do anything you need them to."

That really clicked. Sure I can. My real problem was I didn't want to change that scene. I LOVE that scene. But I needed my villainess. I can just march that bad girl right into the middle of this scene, ADD HER to the chaos and tension.

It was a mess and I had to do a lot of changes, but you know what? It was easy once I just faced the fact that I had too.

Give yourself permission to play with your own words, dabble in the nonsense of a purely made up story. No one says what stays or what goes. So put a few tidbits in, take them back out. Every time you do it, in my opinion, the writing gets better, stronger, if you handle it just right you might be able to leave that backstory in and get a real feel for how to bleed it in, bleed in the GMC.
I don't know if I've EVER liked a scene LESS after a re-write.

Anne Barton said...

Mary, I love this:

"Give yourself permission to play with your own words, dabble in the nonsense of a purely made up story."

You're SO right. We are the queens of these worlds we create, so why not?

Great post AND comments!

Tammy Doherty said...

Okay, now I have to admit to my lack of knowledge (notice I'm not saying I'm stupid, which I am but which I will never admit to)...

I know what GMC means (garage man's companion!) but what does MRU mean? Sounds medical, maybe some sort of futuristic MRI? Manuscript Resusitation Unit?


Camy Tang said...

Oops, my bad--I meant, judges will ding people for lack of GMC, Goal Motivation Conflict.

Missy Tippens said...

Tammy! I love your created term: manuscript resusitation unit! Maybe you can write a book about that. :)

Motivation-Reaction Unit. Check out Randy Ingermanson's post from this past Thursday here on our blog.


LauraLee Shaw said...

Wowzer, I learned a head full with this. Thank you!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Camy, love this post!

The very hilarious thing is that I cannot stand backstory in books...and so I always end up having to add at least a few lines of backstory on editorial revisions. LOL!

I tend to underreveal stuff I guess. LOL! Hard balance to hit though. I remember a paid crit I had with Gail Martin once at an ACRW conference. And she politely pointed out that I needed to think about trimming the seven straight pages of backstory in the book. YES! Seven. LOL!

Backstory is BS...'nuff said.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

TINA...ROFL! on hoping the judges are listening. LOLOL!

Probably they're not because they're too busy sabataging entries at the moment. LOLOL!