Friday, June 2, 2017

Best of the Archives. Backstory: Better a Small Shake Than to Inundate

This post by Janet Dean first appeared in Seekerville on December 16, 2013. Comments are closed today so we all may catch up on our writing and reading. 

Crafting backstory is my favorite part of creating characters. The more troubled the back story, the happier I am. LOL! But backstory can also be lethal to getting our stories in print. 

As a beginning writer, I entered my first manuscript in my first contest. A judge said: “Get on with the story and leave most of this backfill till later.” Backfill sounds like the dirt used between layers of garbage. Ugh. On page 11, another judge wrote: “This is where your story should start—at the point where everything changes.” By the time I entered the third contest with this manuscript, I’d gotten the point and eliminated long passages of backstory. 

Then I entered my second manuscript in a contest. A judge wrote: “Action stops here. You've moved into the backstory, which kills your pacing.” Which proves that what I know and what I do aren't always identical. Anyone relate?

What is backstory?

Backstory refers to what has happened to the characters before the story starts that has shaped who they are and what they believe about themselves. These beliefs affect how they will behave. At least until we torture our story people into finally growing and changing by the story’s end. Writers spend a lot of time discovering what makes our characters tick. So naturally, we're tempted to share our brilliance with readers. 

What is a backstory dump?

Picture filling the back of that dump truck with everything you know about your characters, then raising the bed and dumping that information in the beginning of the story. If our opening pages tell at length what happened in our characters’ pasts, piling words on top of words, the pacing not only grind to a halt, as my savvy judge said, but all that telling kills our readers’ curiosity. 
We want to reel readers in like a fisherman hooks a wide-mouthed bass, not suffocate them under mounds of backstory. 
  • Why Do We Write Backstory Dumps?
We are trying to discover who our characters are. Through writing about them, we get to know them. In the rough draft, we get all that fabulous information on the page. Then we give only what the reader needs to know and cut, paste and save the rest in a separate file. 

We want readers to understand our characters. If readers don’t know what happened to our characters, how will they understand their actions and attitudes? A little mystery is a good thing. We don't want our readers confused but we do want them asking questions.

We want readers to empathize with our charactersIf readers know how much our poor characters have suffered in the past, then they’ll bond with them. True, but a tiny hint of trouble keeps readers turning the pages to discover more. 

 If dumping backstory isn't good, is that Information Important for readers to know?You bet it is!  So if dumping backstory isn't good...
  • How Do We Give This Vital Information to the Reader?
Sprinkle it in. The judge, who said I’d killed the pacing with back story, added: “We need to know this, but not now and not in so large a chunk.” Visualize putting all this information into a salt shaker and then sprinkling it in, a dash here, a dash there. A shake of salt adds flavor to food. A dump of salt makes food unpalatable. We want readers to “gobble” our stories without leaving a bad taste in their mouths.
  • Tips for Sprinkling in Information
Backstory is telling the reader. Far better to show with actions, setting, symbols and dialogue. Often these methods can be combined. 

Use Actions: Actions speak louder than words. From Courting Miss Adelaide:  

His hand sought the telegram inside his pocket, notification that his father had died peacefully in his sleep. Charles crushed the flimsy paper into a tight ball. Maybe now he could put his past to rest.

The act of crushing the telegram reveals more about Charles’s feelings for his father than his thoughts alone and hopefully, makes readers curious.

Use Setting: Use the setting to trigger a comparison to the past or to trigger a memory or flashback. Flashbacks can be overdone so use with care. From The Bride Wore Spurs: 

     Her eyes went wide, she reared back, then kneed Star. The horse leaped forward. “Race you to the creek!” she hollered. “The loser mucks the barn. Heehaw!”
     Bent forward in the saddle, hat dangling, her hair flying out behind her, horse and rider devoured ground.  
     With the force of a right hook to the gut, memories assaulted him. He broke out in a cold sweat as the horror played out in his mind. Amy. Racing her horse toward the creek. Her mare stepping into a prairie dog hole, stumbling, falling, throwing Amy to the ground. 
     He’d reached her in seconds, cradling her limp body in his arms, willing her to breathe.
      Too late.
     She was already dead from a broken neck.

Matt’s flashback is triggered by Hannah’s challenge to race and lets the reader know what happened in his past that impacts him now. The reason he rides after her and stops her horse.

Use symbols: A symbol is something tangible (can be seen or touched) that represents something intangible (feelings and attitudes). From Courting Miss Adelaide: Charles is trying to console Emma, a child plunked into his temporary care.

     Tears spilled over her pale lower lashes, becoming visible now that they were wet and spiky. If he didn't do something, she’d start bawling. The prospect sent him behind his desk.        He jerked open the top drawer and rummaged through it until he found what he sought--a bag of peppermints. “When I was a youngster,” he began, “on my way home from school, I’d pass Mrs. Wagner’s house. She’d be rocking on her porch, wearing a gray tattered sweater, no matter how hot the day...”
     Emma stopped crying, but looked far from cheerful.
     “She’d call me up on the porch, ask if I was studying and behaving. Then, she’d reach into the pocket of her sweater and pull out a peppermint.” Charles took a candy from the bag. Emma’s eyes widened. “She’d say, ‘You’re a smart boy, Charles. Work hard and one day you’ll make something of yourself.’ And, she’d drop the candy into my palm--like this.”
     He opened Emma’s small hand and let a peppermint fall into her palm. When the corners of her mouth turned up in a smile, a peculiar feeling shot through him. As it had for him all those years ago, the candy once again worked wonders.
     His entire adult life, he’d kept a stash of peppermints around, to remind him of Mrs. Wagner, the one person who had believed in him, who’d given him a desire to improve his lot. The candy still tasted as sweet as her words. 

For Charles, peppermints symbolize support, belief in him. As Charles uses peppermints to comfort Emma, he gives another clue about his difficult childhood.

Use Dialogue: What characters say can reveal or conceal their pasts. Have you ever had someone say something and the comment made you wonder what they meant or why they said what they did? You want to know more, but if you asked, the speaker might sidestep the issue. Avoiding an explanation is a good way to make readers speculate about a character's past. Arguments are another method to reveal a secret from the past.  

From The Substitute Bride: Ted has wounded Elizabeth and she lashes back.

     She stabbed a finger at his midsection. “Well, I've got news for you, Ted Logan. I've got an eight-year-old brother. As soon as I can, I’m bringing him here. Then I’ll finally have an ally in this house!”
     Ted felt he’d been sucker punched. “What are you talking about?”
     “You heard me. My father will lose our house in a couple weeks. I want Robby to live with us.”
     He glared at her. “You kept the existence of a brother from me? Why would you do that?”
     “I was afraid of your reaction.” She stepped closer until they stood toe-to-toe. “But I no longer care. Robby’s my responsibility. I won’t let him end up living on the streets.” Her voice broke. “He wants to live on a farm. That’s why I married you! The only reason.”

Another fun way to sprinkle in information is for characters’ words to conflict with their thoughts. From The Substitute Bride:

     “I’m a father, Elizabeth. Fathers don’t run off to pursue every whim or urge they get.”
     She looked at the hay cascading over the haymow, the rafters where barn owls roosted, at anything but Ted. “Sometimes,” she whispered, “they do."
     Ted cupped her jaw with his hand. “Good fathers don't. I’m sorry if you had a childhood filled with uncertainty.”
     She jerked away from his touch. “I didn't. It was...fine. Everything was fine.”
     But it hadn't been. She was playing the game she’d been taught, the one her mother always played. Put on a brave face, pretend everything was all right and eventually Papa would come back home and make it so. For a while.

Use Introspection: Introspection refers to the Point of View character’s thoughts, what's going on in his head. Early in the story a brief thought, either alone or in conjunction with an action, symbol or dialogue can give readers a tantalizing peek at the character’s past. 
  • Is it Ever Appropriate to Share Passages of Backstory Early On?
Of course. Like all craft guidelines, there are exceptions.

Sometimes backstory information is essential for readers to understand what happens in the opening pages. Sometimes backstory is necessary to make readers bond with a character who is taking actions readers might not otherwise understand if they didn't know the circumstances. In the opening pages, suspense writers may use backstory to make readers care about characters in jeopardy. Intersperse backstory with vital action to the story at the point where things change and the pace will remain strong. 

From The Substitute Bride:

     Elizabeth Manning had examined every option open to her. But in the end, she had only one. Her heart lurched.
     She had to run.
     If she stayed in Chicago, tomorrow morning she’d be walking down the aisle of the church on Papa’s arm. Then, walking back up it attached to Reginald Parks for the remainder of his life, which could be awfully long, considering Reginald’s father was eighty-two.
     Papa said she had no choice, now that their circumstances had gone south like robins in winter. He’d reminded her that as Reginald’s wife, she’d be kept in fine style. Probably what the keepers said about the tigers at the zoo.
     She scooped her brush and toiletries into a satchel, then dropped it beside a valise crammed with clothes. No, she couldn't rely on mortality to get her out of the marriage.
     And as for God...
     Martha had promised God would help her. Well, Elizabeth had prayed long and hard and nothing had changed. Perhaps God had washed His hands of her. If so, she could hardly blame Him.
     The time had come to take matters into her hands. Once she got a job and made some money, she’d return—for the most important person of all.

In these first opening lines, readers learn why Elizabeth is defying her father by running away, a vital action that is the point where everything changes. Readers learn Elizabeth believes she’s not in good standing with God and wonder why. Readers also learn Elizabeth cares enough about someone to risk returning. 

When we writers present just enough backstory in intriguing ways, we'll keep the pace of our stories strong and readers turning pages.  

Is backstory tricky for you? Easy? Have you learned to "see" that you're giving too much information too early? 

Janet Dean grew up in a family who cherished the past and had a strong creative streak. Her father recounted fascinating stories, like his father before him. The tales they told instilled in Janet a love of history and the desire to write. Janet is a two-time Golden Heart finalist, Genesis and Carol finalist and a member of Romance Writers of America and American Christian Fiction Writers. Her Love Inspired Historical novels are, also, Golden Quill, Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, Booksellers Best, Inspirational Readers Choice Award and Holt Medallion finalists. Visit Janet at her Website: