Backstory: Where to Draw the Line
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.
SO MUCH TO CONSIDER! SO MUCH FUN TO BE HAD!
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.
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...
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.
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|
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.
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.
And HAVE FUN WITH IT!
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 www.missytippens.com.