Monday, April 14, 2014

Backstory: Where to Draw the Line -- Missy Tippens

Backstory: Where to Draw the Line
Missy Tippens

I was recently talking with a new writer about backstory, and it reminded me of my first online writing class that I took way back in about 1995. Anyone remember the AOL romance writing boards and the online classes that were offered there years ago? I took my first class from Brenda Hiatt. She jumped in talking about backstory, and I immediately waved my virtual hand for the teacher’s attention, and had to ask what that was.

For any new writers who are raising your hands like I did, take a quick jaunt over to read a nice list of writing terms Janet Dean put together in a previous post. Click here to visit. Then please come back!

Now, back to backstory...

Backstory is a character's history, anything that happened to the character before the story started, anything that helped shape who he/she is. This is information that will affect how we write our characters, so we as the author need to know it.

What was his childhood like? What was his birth order? Was his childhood happy, or did a parent die or abandon him? 
What was high school like? Was she popular? Or did she not fit in? 
Did she date the football jock or the bad boy? Or did she prefer to stay home and read? 
Did he go to college? Or did he go into the military or go straight to work for his dad? 
Did she love her hometown, or was she dying to escape to somewhere else? 
Has she ever been in love? Did she fall hard for someone who cheated on her or dumped her for her best friend? Did she love her best friend, but he didn’t feel the same? 
Did he date a social butterfly who dumped him because he would never be able to provide her with what she was accustomed to? 
Is she happy with her current job? Or is she miserable and wanting to get away to somewhere new? 
Is he coming off a recent breakup? Or did he give up on love years ago? Or has he dated every single woman in town, only to realize no one can replace the one true love who died years ago? 
Has she just found out she has a new boss? Or has her friend just fixed her up on a date with a real hunk? 
Has he just run into his old best buddy from middle school—and she’s now gorgeous? Or maybe he’s run into his nemesis, the woman who got him fired from his last job.


The problem with all this really cool backstory information, though, is that we have to eventually choose where the story is going to start—thus how much is going to be designated as backstory, and how much is going to be part of what we include in our story.

Of course, this all depends on the form you want your story to take. Some stories switch nicely from present to past, or start in the present with one scene and then jump to the past to show how they got there. But in this post, I’m talking about stories that are basically linear, starting in one place and then moving forward.

Generally, I look at the big moment of change for my protagonist, the inciting incident, and start the story right before that moment. I try to make sure the inciting incident happens in the first few pages (often, on the first page).

Once you decide where to start the story, then everything before that is backstory.

Now, the question becomes... WHAT DO I DO WITH THE BACKSTORY???

One thing you don’t want to do is a backstory dump. Sure, you need to know this past information to write real characters, characters who have flaws and wounds. But you don’t want to start out giving that information in one long chunk or you’ll lose your reader.

Thinking about how I try to handle this, I’ve come up with some tips.

Tip #1
Show just the right amount of the character’s past in the opening scene so that the reader understands what’s at stake, and so the reader can bond with a character.

I’ve been guilty of not showing enough of this. My editor has had to ask for more. But on my most recent book (turned in last month) I needed to remove some of the past thoughts from my opening because my editor felt the heroine already looked half in love with the hero (not good for the level of romantic conflict if she’s already in love).

Let’s make up a scenario to play with in this post... If your heroine was once in love with the hero, and he suddenly appears in town as her new boss (the inciting incident), don’t dump in a page of backstory that summarizes all that happened between them. Instead, quickly (and briefly) show in her thoughts or through dialogue how he hurt her in the past. This will clue in the reader that it’s not just another day at the office. And it’ll also make the reader feel sympathy for the heroine. So a few thoughts or lines of dialogue can do double duty.

And don’t dump everything else in there about her childhood or family angst or other loves. Which leads to...

Tip #2
Only show what is necessary for the reader to know WHEN it’s necessary for the reader to know.

Maybe later in the story, the reader needs to know that the reason the hero rejected the heroine was because her father threatened him (maybe she was rich and he was the poor kid across the tracks). Once the reader needs to know this information, then you can weave it through with their dialogue and thoughts. Or maybe introduce a new character—her father.

Tip #3
Avoid flashbacks when possible.

I know, I know. We could debate this topic for a week. But my suggestion for new writers is that often, you don’t really need the flashback. It can be much more effective to keep the story active in the present and have the characters talk about what happened in the past. If you show their conversation, you’ve got even more conflict from the present to add to the scene.

Using my made up heroine and her new boss, the hero who broke her heart... Instead of using a flashback to high school where the hero is telling the heroine he’s not interested, that she must have imagined his feelings for her, use an active scene where they discuss it in the present. Maybe she’s angry about something that happened at work, and she tells him she must have imagined that she put the file on his desk. And he can immediately remember that moment years ago when he broke her heart, can feel regret for the pain he caused. Or if you’re in her point of view, she can see the recognition on his face, and feel good that he knows he hurt her. This way, it’s more fun for readers, because they get to stay in the current story yet see a little more of the hurtful past revealed.

Photo credit: iStock_0000015839

Tip #4
Start a story where it really needs to be started, and don’t be tempted to write a prologue unless you have a REALLY good reason to. (You can look back at this recent post on whether to use prologues from WinnieGriggs.) 

Personally, I like to read prologues. But I still feel I need to warn against using one without a good reason—and it’s for the same reason I gave in tip #3. You want the reader to stay in an active, present story. Why? Because the outcome of the current problem is what’s important to readers. They want to see the characters facing trials, overcoming, growing, changing and winning. Events that already happened in the past...well, they’ve already happened and can’t be changed (unless you’re writing time travel!). :)

If you’ve written a prologue already, consider whether there are places in your story where you could feed in that information in bits of dialogue or thoughts. Could keeping that prologue a mystery even help your story? Maybe you could open your story hinting at an event in the past so the reader will want to keep reading to find out what happened.

Tip #5
Not everything that happened in the past is relevant.

Don’t feel like you have to include everything you dream up about your characters in your story. Use only what is going to reveal character, enhance conflict, reveal motivation, or drive character actions.

Don’t include that when the hero was five he ate Cheerios every morning for breakfast...unless it’s important. If he ate them because he likes the taste and still eats them every day, that’s probably not useful (unless it shows he never likes to vary his routine, which drives the heroine crazy). Or did he develop that habit because his mom deserted him and that’s all he could prepare for himself? That might be important in the present when he’s scared to love the heroine, afraid she’ll leave him.

Pick and choose. Use details from the past only if they’re important to the current story.

But the reverse it true as well. Go digging into these details and find some you can add to your story! Use them to enhance the conflict or characterization. Use them to add emotional depth. Use those past fears to cause bad decisions with consequences, which will show character growth.


Today, I’d love to hear what details from your characters’ backstory that you’ve used to enhance the present story. Do you use flashbacks? Do you like to read them? Please share!

GIVEAWAY! If you’d like to win a critique of your first 5 pages for how well you’ve used backstory, please let me know in the comments that you’d like to be entered!

Missy Tippens, a pastor’s wife and mom of three from near Atlanta, Georgia, made her first sale to Harlequin Love Inspired in 2007. Her books have since been nominated for the Booksellers Best, ACFW Carol Award, Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, Maggie Award, Beacon Contest and a 2013 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award. A House Full of Hope was a Romance Writers of America 2013 RITA® Nominee. Her next from Love Inspired, coming in October, is The Guy Next Door. Visit Missy at


  1. I'm first, I'm first!!! :D I have coffee and cinnamon rolls. Thanks for the awesome post Missy. Backstory is something I really struggle with and I did a lot of info dumps. The backstory was actually where my idea for the story began but it didn't work for my target audience. But I couldn't get it out of my head. So I sat down and wrote the backstory as it's own story. 40k words later, I was ready to tackle the story I wanted to tell. Another marvelous thing that happened was that some of the things that were fuzzy in my story suddenly became clear. I just hope I don't have to write a 40k story before starting every story I write. Please put me in for the critique drawing. Thank you!

  2. Great post, Missy. I'm a reader, and so I know how backstory can derail me! Thanks

  3. Okay, Missy, I totally needed this reminder today. I'm knee-deep in revisions and you gave me so many good things to think about, how to give my story forward thrust and how to back off.

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!

    And now I must go put your very smart (I'm ignoring your pretty picture of SPRING.... With possible snow in my forecast tomorrow, who'd a thunk? Mary Connealy is sending it my way and I'M NOT SURE I LIKE HER ANYMORE. HUH!!!!) (That's my three-year-old huffy voice....)

    But my peepers are singing up a storm right now, so I've got middle-of-the-night company!!!!!


  4. Hi Missy,

    Thanks for the great tips!

    I remember spring in Georgia. Especially April 1993. The azaleas were gorgeous in Athens that year, or maybe I took more time to stop and enjoy them. My son was born on the 7th, and every house I've lived in, we've planted azaleas.

    Happy Spring from Wilmore, KY.

  5. LeAnne, thanks for breakfast!! :) :)

    I'm so glad that you shared that you wrote down your pre-story. That can be REALLY helpful! I should have mentioned doing that. I used to write a character diary before starting a story just to get to know my characters. And I still do that sometimes if I feel I need to get to know them better.

  6. Marianne, thanks for sharing that! I'm the same way as a reader. A little bit goes a long way. I also like to have some surprises later, like things to unfold naturally.

  7. Ruthy, thanks for the coffee! Right now, I'm drinking my latte made in my new Mr. Coffee Latte maker!! Thanks for the recommendation. We're loving it!

  8. Jackie, the azaleas are really blooming now. As well as the dogwoods. Many other trees are already finished, and everything is so green now, full of gorgeous new leaves! (Don't you love that new green color?) My parents said they're spring is just a little bit behind us up there in Kentucky.

    Pollen is outrageous! You could see yellow clouds blowing on Saturday when we were up closer to the mountains.

  9. Reading this makes me think it's one of the harder things to figure out for a new writer. We must establish a bond for the reader by creating empathy or at least strong interest in the leads yet we need to open in the middle of action.

    Do I dare say it takes years (was I the only one?) to figure it out and even then it's never mastered.

    Thanks for the blossoms photo, Missy! I'm loving the warmth we had this weekend up in W NY! Made me feel like I was on vacation.

    Have a great week, everyone!
    waving at LYNDEE and hoping you are feeling great!

  10. Morning MISSY, What a timely post for me since I'm starting a new project and was brainstorming Saturday for the plot. Of course I needed all this backstory to deepen the character and the plot.

    Great tips to work with and a great reminder of what I need to do.

    The wildflowers in the desert were gorgeous. The Palo Verde trees are blooming now. They are a bright yellow and as the Spanish word implies, the trunk and branches are a pretty spring green. The cactus are starting to bloom also. Our state flower, the saguaro cactus blooms in May.

  11. I need to apologize to Brenda Hiatt! I spelled her name wrong. Just got it corrected.

    BTW, if Brenda still teaches writing classes, you should take them! She's an amazing teacher.

  12. Yeah, Debra, it can be one of the hardest things we do when we start a new story! I think the toughest part for me is deciding how much of the ordinary world to show. Then we have that tough balance between doing too much backstory vs getting reader empathy.

    So many choices, so little time! :)

  13. Sandra, I wish I could see it! I bet it's gorgeous. So very different from here.

  14. Great post Missy! I'd LOVE a critique of my first 5 pages :-). As a reader, I don't mind prologues, but I prefer to have nuggets dropped in as the story progresses until finally, the whole story comes tumbling out. As a writer, I love your tip to think about whether or not the reader has to know this information now, or if it can wait. :-)

  15. Good morning Missy. Figuring out why a character acts the way they do is the sometimes the funnest part.

    My current heroine is a childcare worker. That made me ask why my 25 year old female would continue to barely make more than minimum wage instead of get her teaching degree. So I made her a tad bit obsessed w/babies. Her backstory... After two broken wedding engagements, she does something totally uncharacteristic and has a one night stand. Got pregnant. Miscarried twins. And never told a single soul.

  16. Missy, thanks for this fun post with excellent tips for handling backstory.

    Nice of you to link to my Writer's Terms post. I remember all the confusion I had with terms like backstory and point of view or worse POV. I try to remember to never assume when I'm speaking or writing posts.

    I do use flashbacks in some of my books. Not that I'm saying I should. LOL But, I've never been told by my editor to cut them. I think the trick is to only use flashbacks when readers need to know something that has wounded my character so deeply, s/he's not going to talk about it for ages, if at all. Without that information readers won't understand what motivates him or her. I try to make these flashbacks brief and emotional.

    However, most of what happened in our characters' pasts can be dealt with in present time by talking. Or acting. I tend to have my characters think too much. So note to self, make your characters talk about the elephant in the room. :-) Handling that conversation can be fun but also tricky.

    Writing books is not for wimps. LOL


  17. MISSY, this was helpful. I appreciate your tips and examples. :) With my first book, I dumped PAGES of backstory into my first chapter, because of course, my readers would want to know ALL about my characters right?

    Thankfully, my mentor shone the light into my naiveté. I've since heard, I believe from Rachel Hauck, that back story breadcrumbs are an effective way to share hints of backstory, especially in the first 50 pages. An internal thought, a hint through dialogue, something like that.

    Let's see, backstory for my heroine: She went against her father's wishes, dated a bad boy and got pregnant. She ended up giving the baby up for adoption, and has never been able to get pregnant again. She used to love holding babies and babysitting, and her hope in life is to be called Mama.

  18. Hey, Lynn! Yes, we like to have those little nuggets dropped in just when we need them. :)

    Good luck on the next round of the Killer Voice contest!

    BTW, we need to talk to Lynette about having another writing retreat! It's time for a getaway. :)

  19. Connie Q, that sounds like some deep backstory that'll make for a strong character. Have you figured out how you're going to reveal it? Little by little? Or a big reveal scene?

    Nice work!

  20. Oh, my "backstory dump," a term with which I am ALL too familiar!!

    I still smile at the HUGE BSD I initially did with A Passion Most Pure -- seven pages of introspection that told the reader everything they wanted to know about my heroine, ad nauseum!!

    Fortunately for me, I paid for a critique from an ACFW author, who quickly set me straight. "Get the action up front," she said. "What??? And cut all this pertinent rambling???

    Well, I managed to move the action from page 7 to page 5, then to page 3, then said, "Oh, what the heck ..." and slapped it on page 1. :)

    Thank God for honest critiques!!

    Great post, Missy!!


  21. Good point, Janet! Sometimes the past is too painful for the character to ever talk about.

    Again, it all comes down to the choices! And yes, this job is not for wimps. :) :)

  22. Jeanne T, I love that term of Rachel's: backstory breadcrumbs. :)

    You know, I think one reason having a critique partner/group read our work is to help with this. If a character is acting unlikeable, we may need to show more of the backstory up front so the reader will understand where he/she is coming from. Otherwise, I think it's best to dribble it in as needed.

  23. Good morning, Julie!

    Yes, I think it's something we all do in our first books. And I think it's a good thing. Because we DO need to know all that information. It makes for richer characters. Then we can edit on the next draft. :)

  24. I am waiting until Easter to revive my love affair with Mr. Coffee Latte Maker....


  25. Ruthy, did you give up coffee??? Or sweets?

    If it's carbs/sweets, you can do what I've been doing. I use light almond milk and Truvia.

  26. Missy, Thank you for the post. It is helpful.

    Please put me in for the critique drawing.

    I hop everyone has a great day and week.

  27. Thanks, Wilani! I hope you have a great day and week as well.

  28. Ruthy has possible snow coming. I just saw on FB that Mary had some snow. I should probably feel guilty for having such a glorious weekend!

    But we have storms coming. So I don't feel quite so bad. :)

  29. Wonderful post, Missy - - thank you, fellow Georgia girl! :)

    I cringe when I think about one of my very first submissions--filled with backstory on the first page---ACK!! But I do know better now, thankfully, LOL.

    Your post is a keeper for me---love the examples you shared. Right now I'm revising my historical ms and hinting at the fact my heroine was jilted by former beau, so doesn't trust men. Trying to get the right balance so the reader knows without a lot of backstory (so your post is very timely!).

    We ARE having a lovely spring here in Georgia, aren't we? Our trees and azaleas have been GORGEOUS! (but as you mentioned...storms are predicted now *sigh*).

    Thank you again for sharing this, and I can't wait to read your upcoming LI book!!
    Hugs, Patti Jo :)

  30. I suppose I'm like every other reader -- I like flashbacks when they're done well. I think the problem, most of the time, is the transition. How does the reader know she's heading into a flashback and then when she's emerging into the present time? It's tricky.

    Thanks so much for the great pointers, Missy. :-)

  31. Wonderful post, Missy! I am guilty of liking my back story. Especially in my mss where the h/h have a past. But I try to feed it to the readers a little at a time rather than dumping it. Although sometimes I do that too... In my first draft.
    Your spring is looking a lot like my spring. Only here, the flowers are wisteria and bluebonnets.

  32. Must run out for a bit! I'll catch up when I get back. In the meantime, please keep chatting about your stories and backstories!

  33. Well done, Missy! This is a great post! Thank you.

  34. Great post and advice Missy. I'm going to print this out and keep in mind as I muddle through my MS. thanks to Seekerville, I am avoiding the huge backstory info dump, but still need work on the sprinkling of backstory in between action.

    would enjoy that five-page critique.

    love the learning i get here. now to print the post...

  35. Super-great advice, Missy! Especially this one:

    Only show what is necessary for the reader to know WHEN it’s necessary for the reader to know.

    What I struggle with in my series novels is filling in just enough important details in subsequent books so that readers aren't completely lost by reference to what happened in the earlier books. It's a fine line.

  36. Good morning, Missy. Thanks for the excellent post. I particularly liked the point about using backstory in Tip 3.

    I'd love to be in for the critique. Thanks!

  37. Excellent post, Missy! And just what I need to help with my backstory dump problem (Yes, I HAVE that problem and glad to know I'm not the only one, Jeanne and Debra!).....and helps with where to start my WIP.

    My hero is ashamed for not being faithful to a promise he made to his sister. Now he is determined to rectify that error, but the heroine is in the way. ;) Yay, CONFLICT! I've learned so much... (everything) from Seekerville!

    Thanks for the cinnamon rolls (LeAnne), coffee (Ruthy), and picture reminders of spring!

    Jackie, I like your azalea memories. My peach tree, filled with coral blossoms right now, reminds me of my granddaughter. She was born the first year it bloomed.

    Now I'm off to read Janet's writer's terms.

    Missy, please enter my name for your critique. Thank you!

  38. I think as you get more experienced you can do flashbacks well.

    Kristin Higgins does chapter flashbacks in all her books. And she does it well!!

  39. A wonderful post, Missy!

    I wrote a prologue for my first story. It was a flashback to explain the reasons why my hero was where he was and doing what he was doing. In the final edits, I got rid of the prologue and told the information in dribbles throughout the rest of the story, but it was so useful for me to have that scene written out. It ended up being a good way for me to really know his backstory, without dumping it all on my readers.

    Hmm, I'll have to try using that with my WIP....

  40. Missy, please put my name in for the giveaway. I forgot to mention that in my earlier comment.

  41. Well this is just WEIRD!!!! MISSY!!!

    Why you ask? (okay, Missy is hoping I shut up, she didn't ask)

    Because I am getting so ready to pull the trigger on a prequel I have all written and ready to go about the heroes from Trouble in Texas. I started just telling a few little stories that were mostly already written, at least in my mind, or how they met in Andersonville prison and it grew and grew and grew.
    It's now a novella. Set in Andersonville Prison and in an army hospital immediately after.

    AND it is completely NOT a real book. So I'm NOT going to publish it but right now my plan share it. Maybe post it a chapter at a time on my blog as part of the run up to the release of Stuck Together, which is in June so if I'm going to do it, I should just DO IT!

    But it's not a real story, just scenes strung together. It's NOT a romance. It's not very funny, there just wasn't much comedy to be mined for me in Andersonville Prison. So .....
    I don't know ....
    I am tempted to just ignore it and leave it on my computer, but I guess I'll start posting it to my blog here pretty soon.


    Yes you need it, but it needs to be salted in slowly through the whole book.

  43. PS yeah right West New York's snow is somehow MY FAULT!!!!!!!


  44. Like any other writing skill if it's done WELL it's okay.

    I was scarred early in my writing life by a book with a prologue and for the whole rest of the book, honestly, I never did figure out what that prologue had to do with the story.


    I'm sure the author could have explained it, but that's stinking inconvenient.

    I do like epilogues but if you're doing series you can exactly jump forward in time ten years or even three years, to say how things are going because you're trampling on the next story.

    Stuck Together has an epilogue, and I think The Husband Tree has one.

    I'm going to stop thinking now. My brain hurts.

    I need to go back and re-read that backstory dump novella. It's called Closer than Brothers.

  45. Hi Missy

    I was back there in the mid 90s, my head spinning with all the details involved in writing a novel, including how to treat backstory.

    I have one or two flashbacks in every story I've written, but not long and way into the book when the reader's already invested. Sometimes it's the best way to handle it. Like one of my heroes felt deep guilt over his father's death but why isn't revealed until past the middle when the heroine asks him point blank. I went into a flashback where his father had begged the son to help him kick his drug addition and the son refused. The father committed suicide. No way could I show all that emotional drama through dialogue.

    But backstory is hard to handle. Thank you for the tips. Oh, yes put me in the drawing for your critique.

  46. Hmmm, forgot to share my backstory. Heroine had a meth cooking boyfriend who framed her when she wouldn't "help". She finds the Lord in jail, but developed an aversion to men in uniform.
    Hero is a US Coast Guard investigator whose parents, who ran a Mission, were killed by meth addicts who had supposedly found the Lord.

    i think that sort of puts up roadblocks to be revealed in bits and pieces via conversation.

  47. Great post, Missy! I think backstory dumping is really hard for pantsers (like myself). I think the tendency is to spend more time on getting to know the characters in the beginning instead of focusing on the inciting incident. On a blog once, I asked Brenda Novak about having trouble with a slow start to my manuscripts and she said (for pantsers) to write the first three chapters, but start with chapter four. I loved that advice. Cuts out a lot of backstory that way.

  48. Larissa, I agree..... I find I do that when I'm struggling, THEN....

    I look back at my moral premise and I see "Forgiveness.... atonement".... and I think, THIS ISN'T THE LEAST BIT NECESSARY and I cut it because keeping it in was slowing DOWN EVERYTHING.....



    The snow IS your fault, you got it first and sent it here, so don't get all namby pamby defensive on me.

    Own it, Mary.

    With grace.

    Geez Louise, haven't you read any of Eleanor Roosevelt's words of wisdom????? Didn't you two like got to school together?????

    I AGREE WITH MARY ON THE BACKSTORY, the halt, the stall the dead stop....

    So if I KNOW this, why do I still do it??????


  50. Mary, why the heck is it a backstory dump?

    Are they mute, honey??????

    Their tongues are tied????

    Horrible torture, that. (frowns....)

    Because if they CAN talk. Why don't they?

  51. Great post, Missy! I'm still learning how much is too much and how much is not enough when it comes to back story, especially in the beginning. So please drop my name in the hat for the critique. :)

    Springtime in GA! Wow, that brings back memories. I grew up in Northern GA, so I can still remember the dogwoods and daffodils blooming as it finally started warming up around March and April. :)

    Mary and Ruthie, y'all crack me up. :)

  52. MARY! Just to cheer you!!!
    I'm in East Texas (near Tyler), and it is 44 degrees and rainy! No Sunshine here in the Lone Star State today. And tonight it is going to be 33 degrees. The Easter cold snap has arrived! (And I don't blame you not one bit!)

    And MARY!!
    Please think of a way to put that book together. I'd buy it!! Maybe the comedy & chaos angle can be a secondary story line from one of their hometowns. I'm totally new at fiction writing, but YOU could figure something out!!!

    MISSY!! Thank you for the great info! You have saved me from making a mistake before I've even started writing my story.

  53. JANA, I feel for you! Why does it seem we always have a cold snap around Easter, no matter when the date falls each year??? Just when I want to break out the open-toed shoes, I'm reaching for my boots!

  54. Hi Missy,
    I like your way of retelling the past without flashbacks. Some books do this to much where you are back and forth and its confusing. sometimes its nice to find out the reason and seeing what happened can be good (when told well).
    I like books that have a secret. The resent book and only book I have read this year by Narelle Atkins is about a runaway bride. We know she had a reason to run out of the wedding service and its alluded to at different times and as a reader I want to know that reason so am looking forward to finding out. As a reader I have several different ideas in my head and often am completely blind sided with the reason sometimes not. Narelle did this really well.

    Im in the process of changing meds (weaning of one to start a different one) Add toothache which I have antibiotics for it could be a fun few days. If the antibiotics dont work the tooth comes out next Wednesday but praying they do (cant afford root canal) and dont want to be have toothache for another week.

  55. Great post, Missy!

    Early on, I included flashbacks in my manuscripts. My bad!

    You've provided lots of tips on how to carefully--and gently--work in the needed portions of the backstory.

    Excellent teaching today, Missy! This one deserves to be saved in all of our how-to files! Thanks!

  56. Aw, Jana's being nice to the Connealy.

    Jana, Jana, Jana.....


    Be nice to her.

    You be good cop.

    I'll be BAD COP WRITER. :)

    It works!

  57. Oh, JENNY, I sure hope you can get by without a root canal! I had one several years ago, and it wasn't nearly as awful as I'd imagined it would be, but it was definitely NOT fun!!!

  58. Missy, what a fun post! Don't we all have backstory??? LOL!

    Our characters have a past that shaped them and it is difficult to gauge the amount to sprinkle in at a time. I struggle with it all the time. Like you, I tend to include too little and am always coaxed to round them out a bit more...but use as few words as possible.

    Over the years I've learned to feed in tidbits of the past through conversation and introspection where applicable. I try to steer conversations so a few sentences describing a past issue are necessary for the present situation to make sense.

    Great concepts and resolutions to think about, Missy. Glad you brought them up for discussion.

  59. Jenny, praying the antibiotics work! Root canals aren't fun.

  60. I echo Julie's sentiment...Thank God for honest critiques!!

  61. Hi Missy! I always have a hard time with backstory...I just think of so many details and want to include them all! But, I'm learning to trim and only use the most important parts. Right now, my WIP is a cosy murder mystery (hopefully to be turned into a series!) about a woman who works on the administrative side for a symphony. Her backstory is that she was a gifted musician with a brilliant future as concert violinist until a car accident in college destroyed the fine motor skills in her left hand. She has a lot of anger toward that accident, but still wants to be a part of music, even if she can't create it.

    I've been experimenting with ways to introduce that backstory, such as people noticing her hand, and people who used to know her when she was a musician asking about her career. It's interesting!

    I would LOVE a critique! Please include me in the drawing!

    Have a great day!

  62. Great suggestions, Missy. As LeAnne mentioned in the first commment, sometimes we just have to include all that backstory as we first get to know the characters and the story.

    Then we can cut.

    Or our CPs can.

  63. I'm finally back! I took my daughter for a college visit today and got home later than I thought we would.

    Now, to catch up!

  64. Patti Jo, you're right. It's truly a balance. And I'm still learning about how to do that. I think it's something we'll always deal with. Decisions…decisions…


  65. Meghan, your'e right! Transitions are key. And like Tina said, some authors are really good at it. She mentioned Kristin Higgins. Using a new chapter is a great way to demarcate a transition in time.

  66. Crystal, the wisteria here has been gorgeous! I stopped two places the other day to take photos. I'll have to share them somewhere--maybe my blog. So beautiful and among my favorites. A nice fragrance as well.

  67. DebH, I'm glad you found it helpful! Like I said, it's something I'm still working on.

    Isn't it nice that we can always re-work that first draft. :)

  68. Myra, I've just been dealing with that some myself! I'm working on the second book in a new town and keep trying to decide how much of the past characters to put in there.

  69. Mary Curry, thanks for stopping by! I have you entered.

  70. Sherida, that sounds like such a great story setup! Definitely lots of conflict. :)

    One good thing about where we start our stories: we can always go back and change it later. :)

  71. Missy, spring in Georgia is just so beautiful!

    Thanks for the backstory tips. I love to make up backstory. You can be so creative. Sometimes I wish I could use all of it.

  72. Good point, Tina! The more experience we have, the easier it is to play around with structure.

  73. Jan, it is really valuable to have those scenes written down. And it can be useful later if we want to break it up into bits to have quick flashbacks or quick bits of info woven into the current plot.

  74. Thanks for all the reminders, Missy! It's good stuff. Definitely a checklist I need to enlarge, print and hang where I can be reminded of what to do with my backstory. :)

    I would love for my name to be put in for the drawing.

  75. Mary Connealy, I think that's a great idea! A way to use our backstory. :) And it would be great to use it as a set-up for a new series or book.

  76. Yep, Mary, I'm still trying to figure out exactly how Ruthy can blame YOU for her snow. LOL

  77. Elaine, it sounds like you started about when I did. Hard to believe how time flies!

    Your scenario does sound like something that would make a powerful flashback.

  78. Deb H, that sounds like a great setup for conflict! What a way to start them off at odds. :)

  79. Hi, Larissa! Yes, it can be helpful for pantsers to go ahead and write. But then later figure out where your story actually starts.

    Maybe try to figure out the big point of change. The point where the hero or heroine is faced with a challenge, and they have to make a choice about entering that new world.

  80. #dork, why do any of us do it?? We're going to be figuring out this gig until we're retired. :)

  81. Anna, we were at N. GA for the college visit today! It was beautiful. Rained most of the time, but cleared enough to see fog over the mountains. And lots of gorgeous trees.

  82. Jana V, I'm glad it was helpful! And yes, Mary could make anything fun to read!

  83. I'm not a fan of flashbacks because most of the time I'm more interested in the "flashback" story than the present one. Ha!

    Great post. Few things are worse than an info dump. They make me feel like I'm reading a book instead of living the story. If that makes sense :)
    I'm always up for a critique.

  84. Jenny, I LOVE a secret, too! I'm excited to hear you're enjoying Narelle's book! I look forward to reading it as well.

    Hope your tooth heals up without surgery!!

  85. Thanks, Debby!

    And Ruthy… the bad cop… DEFINITELY fits!


  86. Hey, Audra! Yes, you're right. We ALL have backstory. Hey! Maybe we can trade off and use each other's. :)

  87. Stephanie, that sounds like a fantastic backstory! I can see how it would be difficult to decide how to show bitterness. It's tough to make a bitter character likable. But I think if you show her helping other people, you can safely have her pain filled inner thoughts--especially if you have other people bringing it up to her. It would make her very sympathetic.

  88. Yes, Pam. Critique partners are a wonderful help!

  89. Cara, you're right! I love to create backstory. Sometimes it's more fun than the story itself. LOL But that's because it's not as much work. :)

  90. Dianna, I'm glad you found it helpful!

  91. LOL, Courtney!! That doesn't bode well for the story if the flashback is more entertaining. :)

    And I LOVE the way you stated that it makes you feel like you're reading a book instead of living a story. It's because you're not getting lost in the story, into feeling like you're part of it. Such a nice way to say it. It shows how important that fictional dream is. And flashbacks can jar you out of the dream.

  92. I hope I didn't miss anyone's comment! I had a lot of catching up to do.

    Anyone who said they want to be entered, I have you down for the drawing.

  93. Great tips Missy!

    I bought and i'm soaking in Scene and Structure. I would have LOVED to be in one of his classes!

    Thanks again for great editing ideas! Stephanie

  94. Hey, Stephanie! So glad to see you here!

    Yes, I would love to have sat in on one of Bickham's classes! I love to attend workshops at writing conferences. Always go to as many as possible.

  95. Backstory is so tricky. Thanks for all the good tips. And I'm not a fan of prologues unless they ate being used to set up a series. And I love series.

    I'd also live to win a critique of the first five pages of my manuscript.

  96. Make that LOVE not live. :-)

  97. Thanks for the information about peeling the layers of the backstory. Learning about the craft of writing is so integral, especially thinking about how others view the book. Thanks for the referral back to the other post as well. Writing is harder than it looks because you have to give enough information for everyone to be on the same page, but not too much so it's an information dump. I'm obviously still learning that fine line. Thanks.

  98. Such good tips! Thanks, Missy. Once a character's backstory is clearly lodged in my mind, I sometimes forget to share pertinent bits with the reader. It's easy to forget the reader doesn't know what's in my head! That's when my beta readers are invaluable. They start asking questions. :)

    Thanks for the coffee, LeAnne and Ruthy. Not sure which of you made this pot, but it's strong and hot... just what I need to keep me going a little longer tonight.

  99. Thanks for stopping by Terri and Tanya!

    Carol G., EXACTLY! I do the same thing--get it stuck in my head! I'm so glad I'm not the only one. :)

  100. Hi Missy! I loved this post on backstory. I'm on the second draft of my WIP and am really trying to cut any unnecessary backstory. I cut my entire, much beloved by me, prologue. It was hard but I had to do it.

    I would love a critique of my first five pages. Thanks for this great giveaway!

    Sara Ella