Simply Writing | THE BACKSTORY DILEMMA—HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

In Creative Writing by RWA Blog Coordinator2 Comments

This month’s blog comes to you courtesy of Helen W!! Helen, please contact me on info@michelle-somers.com to organise your free 30 minute Skype session.

Now, onto the blog . . .

There are many, many posts out there on what we as writers call ‘info dumps’—those large expository blocks of information dropped into our narrative in one hefty lump. And if we keep on looking, there are just as many posts on why info dumps are a no-no when it comes to fast-paced, engaging, page-turning storytelling.

More often than not, this ‘dump’ of information comprises backstory events.

Today’s post is my take on this subject.

Let’s stop first and think about the definition of backstory.

Backstory can be defined as “a web of past experiences that impact a character and help to explain their desires, fears and motivations.”

Of course, desires, fears and motivations is fancy-speak for GMC (goal, motivation, conflict).

From this one sentence we can understand the critical role backstory plays in characterisation. Our characters act and react a certain way on the pages of our book. More often than not, these actions and reactions stem from past experiences that don’t form part of our story. That doesn’t make these experiences any less important. As authors, we need these experiences to understand why our characters act and react the way they do, and we need them to provide our readers with context, particularly when and if our characters actions seem out of place or overstated.

So, that said, there is a place for backstory in our manuscript. But how do we incorporate it seamlessly and deliberately into our stories, without the insertion feeling like one colossal, pace-slowing info dump?

Let’s explore the issues, then we’ll look to a solution . . .

Backstory is often ‘dumped’ at the onset of a story because the writer feels the reader just has to know these character histories to help them understand their characters and love them as much as they do.

All admirable goals. After all, this is what we want, right? For our readers to immediately engage with our story and characters?

What these same writers don’t yet understand is that whole chunks of information aren’t necessary for achieving this. Less is definitely more when it comes to backstory and information critical in giving context to your plot or character actions. Flawed and unfortunate histories make for riveting reading, but how much of those histories should make it onto the pages of your story?

We’ll answer this question in a bit . . .

See, you’re hooked. I’m hinting at the solution, but I’m not going to yield. Not yet. I’m going to tug that line just a little bit more, and reel you in before I give you the bait.

Just a little ‘show, don’t tell’ here, to keep you engaged . . .

Ideally, a similar strategy we’d like to employ with our storytelling.

But seriously, at this early stage of our story, we want to give the reader a little insight into our character, while dropping them into a moment of action or change. Something to whisk them away from their own dreary lives and into an adventure that is our story.

Through this moment of action, we as storytellers should endeavour to deepen characterisation, revealing traits or actions that prompt the reader to ask ‘why?’ Leading our reader to ask ‘why?’ is good. Asking ‘why?’ means our readers are engaged, and it means they’ll just have to read on to get their answer.

Now, back to backstory.

There are 3 ways in which we can impart backstory into our stories:

  1. Flashbacks
  2. Character musings and memories
  3. Exposition

Each of these avenues can have their place in telling a story. But use them wisely, and with deliberation. And remember one salient point—backstory (as its name suggests) drags the story backward.

By employing any one of these 3 backstory mechanisms, we are slowing the pace and returning to a time before the onset of our story. Our goal as a writer should be to drive the story forward, to take the reader with us on our character’s journey. Managing backstory requires control. It’s great to have rich backstories for your characters, but to do them justice, hold back and reveal them at a time that best serves your story.

So, before we write any backstory reference, we should ask ourselves whether this reference is necessary, or whether we can impart this information in another way.

Think about your backstory event before you write it into your story. Does the reader need to know the details of this event to make sense of the character or the plot? If the answer is no, leave it out. If it’s yes, ask yourself one more question. Does the reader need to know it now?

More often than not, when you’re in the opening pages/scenes of your story, the answer will be no.

You want to drop your reader into the action, investing them in your characters as you propel the story forward. Do this, and you’ll hook your reader. They’ll keep reading, despite the fact that there are questions that remain unanswered . . .  at this point.

Just remember, when a reader picks up your story, they do so with an element of trust—no matter the number of questions your earlier scenes raise, they know you’ll reveal the answers before the story’s end. And in the meantime, those ‘why?’ questions are among the reasons they keep reading. They help create the suspense, and they invest them in your characters. And they make them read on, determined to know more.

Don’t deliver ‘more’ too early. Why then, will they need to read on?

So how do we go about incorporating backstory into our narrative? Let’s explore the key steps involved.

  1. Identify the purpose of the backstory event in that particular scene. More often than not, you’ll find this event is required to explain character behaviour and plot developments. Or to highlight that wonderful character builder, GMC (goal, motivation, conflict).
  2. Keep your reference relevant—use your backstory references to give context to a character’s current situation or choices. Be mindful that dropping backstory references into your narrative without a need for clarity will just bog down your narrative and slow the pace.
  3. Only reveal what is necessary at any one point in the story, to help provide clarity or context for your readers.
  4. Write backstory without leaving your story’s current time—this is crucial to maintaining the pace of your narrative. This, of course, negates the use of flashbacks. I am undecided around the use of flashbacks, my main problem being around the slowing—or complete stalling—of pace. Flashbacks can and have been used very effectively as a source of conveying backstory information. And for seasoned writers, they can be a very powerful tool for doing just this. For those of us less seasoned, my advice would be to tread carefully, or to consider an alternative avenue for sharing this backstory information.
  5. Create a hunger for the backstory. Make the reader desperate to discover what’s fuelling your character’s fears, phobias or flaws, and what is driving their actions and reactions, as well as their choices. Build the character up, and pepper hints to highlight there are reasons for these actions/reactions, etc, along their journey. Then reveal them when the reader is good and primed.
  6. Create intrigue and suspense in relation to the backstory. Create such a web of intrigue around this character’s past that the reader just has to know what events happened to fuel their behaviour. Reveal just enough for the character and/or plot to make sense, but not so much as to bog down and slow the narration.

What do you think? Is the issue of backstory and info dumps starting to seem clearer now?

I hope so.

Let’s look at some examples of backstory references to give you a sense of how much is enough in the opening scenes, and how you can build on your backstory to build interest and intrigue:

EXAMPLE 1

I’ll start with an example from my novel, Lethal in Love. In this romantic suspense, my main protagonist and heroine, homicide detective Jayda Thomasz, has experienced hurt in her past from an ex love interest, Liam. Let’s look at how I pepper this idea into my story and create interest and intrigue around this backstory event.

Reference 1

Here, we find Jayda and her partner, Chase, in the back of a police van as Jayda prepares to go under cover into a swingers club. Chase cracks a joke at her expense, and this excerpt marks her reaction:

The time when Chase and his wisecracks had seemed charming was long past.

He’s not Liam.

She knew that. Knew this situation was nothing like before. But reason wouldn’t curb her dread. She’d dodged the aftermath once. Unlikely she’d dodge it a second time round.

So, here is my first mention of Liam, and it is found in chapter 1. I haven’t mentioned who Liam was, or even when this backstory event took place. What have I ‘told’ the reader? That there was a man called Liam in Jayda’s past, and something in their ‘association’ had almost lead to an ‘aftermath’—something negative, that she believes she’ll fail to dodge if a similar ‘association’ happens once again.

Not much to go on here, but are you intrigued? Do you want to know more about Liam and how his actions have shaped Jayda’s reactions now?

Reference 2

Jayda’s hand dropped to her hip, devoid now of her badge. It didn’t matter that life outside the precinct had barely existed for her the past seven years. She’d matched her father’s success, made detective before her thirtieth birthday. And she’d done it by keeping her head down and the fly of her pants securely fastened.

Thank you, Liam.

There he was again. Elbowing his way into her thoughts.

After seven years, the anger still lingered, a reminder of her promise never to compromise herself again. Which made her stupidity with Chase all the more regrettable.

Ahh, so here we gain a little more insight. Liam hurt Jayda seven years ago, causing her to spurn romantic relationships. Instead, she kept ‘her head down’ and focused on work, making detective before her thirtieth birthday. And what else do we discover? Jayda is still angry, at Liam, herself. And she won’t ‘compromise’ herself again. Mmm, we already know that Chase is also a homicide detective and her partner on the job. So, we can surmise that Liam was also somehow part of her work, and she views what happened to have compromised her position at work. Something she won’t allow to happen again. That means any and all flirtations with Chase are a no-no.

A heads up here, Chase is not her prospective love interest. We’ll meet him after she enters the swinger’s club.

So, here we are given more information than before, but we’re also left with more questions. We just have to keep reading, if we want to uncover the answers.

Reference 3

Jayda has now entered the swinger’s club, and a man approaches:

‘Enjoying your first time on the scene?’ The voice matched the man; deep and rich, full bodied, sexy as all hell.

Jayda’s shoulders stiffened. Inexperience was her cover, so she should have been pleased. Only, for some reason she found herself wanting to appear more worldly, more sophisticated for him.

Ridiculous. Really. Maybe more than disappointment and drink had led her to fall into Chase’s arms. Thank God she hadn’t fallen further. But that didn’t mean falling was out of the question completely.

She made her body relax. Once upon a time she’d clung to the misguided delusion of ‘saving herself’. Thanks once again, Liam.For pounding the final nail on that three-studded coffin, then leaving her without a backward glance. She’d never ventured down that path since. Still saving herself for someone worthy of her all. Just as her mother had.

Bullshit!

Knots squeezed at her chest.

That fabled life of love and wedded bliss was a lie. If her parents could walk away after twenty-five years, what was she still waiting for?

More revelations here. We’ve now progressed to chapter three of our story, where Jayda reflects on her ‘near miss’ with her partner, Chase, and her parents’ declining relationship. Here we discover that Jayda doesn’t sleep around, and that she intended to wait for the right man, following in the footsteps of her mother. Until now. Her parents are separating after twenty five years, and this has challenged all her preconceptions about love and relationships. She now believes the fallacy of the right man and true love is a lie. So why would she continue to wait for something that obviously doesn’t exist?

See how we’re building a picture here? We’re slowly providing more insight into the character, as we slowly peel back the layers and expose just a little more of her backstory. And, of course, this builds into her motivation for falling into a sexy stranger’s arms—something that happens in a later scene—an action completely out of character.

Reference 4

Here’s a brief scene during a gym class where Jayda discusses her parents’ declining relationship with her sister:

This was getting better by the minute. ‘You mean they’ve had problems before?’

‘After Dad returned from that undercover stint on the Highbury Case.’ The class dropped to the floor for thirty seconds of moving push-ups. Jayda did the same.

Three years ago. Back then she’d been focused on getting her detective’s badge, so family life was a blur. They were always there for her. Her rock. But with studies and training, she’d hardly been home.

What she did remember was the tension. She’d shrugged it off as a projection of her own worries over her studies. Never once had she imagined her parents would anything but love each other, or grow old and grey together. Wasn’t that why Dad retired last year? They were the perfect couple. A winning team. Bec’s words, but she’d always echoed them.

Jayda had spent a lifetime dreaming of exactly what they had. So much so, she’d dreamed herself into love with Liam. Rationalised her disappointment when reality failed to meet fantasy. Made excuses for his failings. Her own.

Because she’d wanted her parents’ kind of love with all her heart. Until two weeks ago; the day she’d discovered it was all a sham.

Now, in chapter 4, we gain even more insight. Jayda craves a relationship like her parents, and she thought she’d found it when she found Liam. She’d thought to ‘save herself’ for the right man, just as her mother had. And she’d believed Liam to be that guy, until he hurt her, then left her. We don’t know the details yet. But slowly, when events happen that challenge this belief, we are given just a little more detail and depth into her character.

When does Jayda finally reveal the full extent of Liam’s betrayal? How Liam used her and hurt her, compromising not only her emotional state, but also her career? Chapter 40. Here, finally, Jayda tells her love interest, Seth, the full story of her betrayal. This is a backstory reference which would come under our heading of ‘character musings and memories’, and by this stage the reader has been handed enough of an understanding to lend motivation to Jayda’s actions and decisions, but no more. By now, the reader is so invested in their story and in Jayda, that this larger inclusion of backstory doesn’t cause them to skip or put the book down. They have to know.

EXAMPLE 2

My second example centres around the hero in my second novel, Murder Most Unusual. This is Chase’s story. What we already know is that Chase is a homicide detective. What we soon discover is that he’s hiding a deep, dark secret that could cost him his career.

Reference 1

So, in this early ‘meet cute’ scene, Chase’s love interest, Stacey, has been steeling herself into entering the precinct to confront Chase. He bowls on out of the station doors, and straight into Stacey.

Chase watched the bow in Stacey’s lips tighten and braced himself. His first impulse was to lean across and drown in the scent of honeysuckle and her. His second was to get the hell away before he did something stupid. Like kiss her.

“What are you doing here, other than wreaking havoc on everyone around?”

She straightened up, all one and a half plus metres of her. “You bowled me over, not the other way round!”

He bit back a retort. Rolled his shoulders and winced.

His troubles were no fault of hers, and projecting them only added guilt to his ever-growing mountain of emotions.

Just one sentence, but here we get a sense that Chase’s anger has little to do with his encounter with romantic suspense author, Stacey, and more to do with ‘troubles’ and ‘guilt’ that are plaguing him. This is a taste to tease the reader, and make them ask questions. It makes them want to know more.

Reference 2

Towards the end of the same scene, we get this:

She had that startled deer look—wide eyes, ready to bolt—and his hold on the laughter slipped into a chuckle. “Work and pleasure aren’t mutually exclusive, you know.”

“They are for me.”

“Live a little, Stacey. Life’s too short.” Which reminded him. His real appointment awaited. He sidestepped and pushed open the door. “Call and we’ll make another time.”

She scampered up beside him, didn’t notice the puddle until she ploughed through it, splashing water halfway up his leg. Great!

Water plastered her trousers to her calf, but she didn’t seem to notice, or care. “Can’t we at least walk and talk at the same time?”

His right arm spasmed. Reason enough to end things here. His squad believed he was following up on a lead and he didn’t need some romance writer catching him on the lie.

Ooh, another clue. This time we get to see there is some physical reason for Chase’s anger. His arm spasms. And he’s lied to his squad about why he has to leave the precinct. More questions. Why?

Reference 3

This next excerpt takes place at an awards ceremony. Stacey has just won an award, and Chase is there to confirm whether she is responsible for the string of murders plaguing the streets of Melbourne:

“Why are you really here, detective?”

She pressed every single one of his buttons, and he was tempted to press back—hard. Against the wall, on the carved wooden bench…

A life without living is worthless. Why his father’s words came to him now, he had no idea. He was all too familiar with the weight of regrets.

Damn!

Killer she may be, but cold she was definitely not.

“For this.”

Her lips parted, an invitation in any language.

And then a little later, after their kiss:

Some moves were inexcusable, regardless the excuses. “That should never have happened.”

“Damn straight, it shouldn’t!” Her bottom lip trembled, as if she were vulnerable. Hurt.

He had a crazy desire to kiss her pain away. His right wrist began to tremble. He stilled it with his other hand and turned away. He was not weak. Life would not do that to him. He dropped his hand. She would not do that to him.

He turned back. Now she looked pissed. Well, she could take a damn number.

And a little further still:

She licked her lips and he almost groaned out loud.

“How far would you go to close a case?”

He shook his head. “That’s not the same thing.”

“You think not?” He dragged his gaze from her hand to her face and hated the knowing look she shot him. “Do you love your job, detective?”

His hand fisted. Not as strong as he’d have liked. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

See how I’ve peppered hints into this one scene regarding Chase’s conflict? I’ve picked the places I felt reminded him or challenged him regarding this conflict, and I’ve shown his emotional turmoil. How much he loves his job. How losing his ability to be a detective scares the crap out of him. How helpless he feels about what’s happening, and his anger at losing control of his life, and his body.

What do you think? Does this work? Does it intrigue you about this character and make you want to read on?

Reference 4

Here we move to chapter 3, and a scene that begins in the precinct with Chase and his partner, Jayda.

Chase slammed his fist against his desk and immediately regretted it. Pain shafted up his arm. The sound echoed through the precinct and more than a few heads popped up before he glared them down.

“You okay?” Jayda Thomasz peered at him over her desk. The only one in the squad impervious to his mood.

He scowled.

Avoiding her green-eyed scrutiny, he grabbed his coffee only to drop it back amidst the clutter. He let his hand fall into his lap and felt the tremble against his thigh.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Later in this same scene:

“I’m meeting Seth for a drink. Why don’t you join us?”

“Pass.”

“You’re not still pissed about that whole Night Terror fiasco?”

Was he pissed? Her butt-head fiancé had turned his rescue op into a disaster. A uniform was stabbed, he’d been forced to kill the serial killer to prevent him filling Seth’s numb-skull with a round of lead. And, for his troubles, he’d enjoyed a chewing out from Hackett.

Bet your ass he wasn’t all fuzzy and friendly about the guy. Considering he knew.

He’d told no one. Not even Gracie. Why worry her when his fears could be groundless.

But Seth had discovered what he’d tried his damnedest to hide. The man was a ticking time bomb. As of yet, he hadn’t shared his knowledge with Jayda. Who knew how long that would last?

Ahh, so again, we get a sense of a secret, something he hasn’t shared with anyone, even his sister. Something to do with his health, and an illness that he may or may not have. But Jayda’s love interest knows, and Chase is worried he could spill the beans at any time.

And finally in that same scene:

“Since when do we keep our partner out of the loop?”

“Not sure, Jayda. You tell me.”

Her breath hitched.

It was a low blow, but he couldn’t stop himself. Easier to keep the distance than let people in.

Palms flat on her desk, Jayda pushed up out of her chair. Mission accomplished.

“You’re still sore about eleven months ago? Get over it, Chase. And yourself.” She grabbed her jacket and bag. “I refuse to apologise again. Tell Hackett I’m following up a lead. And don’t bother to call me until you get that head of yours out of your ass.”

She stormed toward the exit, bowling past Stacey, almost knocking her over in the process. Not that the woman needed help. She managed clumsy all by herself.

Jayda was right, of course. He was being an ass. Funny thing was, he’d long gotten over her working the Night Terror case without him. Was over her falling for another man. He was even over discovering a friend had betrayed him in the biggest way possible.

There was nothing that made him so angry he wanted to punch the wall until his fist came out the other side.

Nothing but the possible time bomb hanging over his head—a debilitation he’d watched rob his mother of a normal life and his father of every plan he had so he could be her carer, twenty-four-seven. Degeneration of his muscles until justice and the fit of his gun in his hand were a distant memory.

He wanted to yell. Fight. Do something so stupid he’d lose sight of everything that made his life feel over.

“We need to talk.” Honeysuckle taunted his senses. Stacey.

He slammed the file closed and turned it over. Why did her voice make him want to forget with her?

And finally we get the goods! There’s still more to Chase’s conflict, and we’ll get that much, much later. But suddenly we understand Chase just a little more. We understand that his mother died from a condition (we don’t know what yet) and he’s starting to show symptoms, causing him to believe he might have that same condition too.

In another scene we get into his head and understand that he could take a test and confirm either way. But he won’t—knowing won’t change anything, and he doesn’t want to confirm what he believes is already true—that what future he has left will be bleak and short.

I could go on, but hopefully by now you get a sense of how slowly seeding backstory into your manuscript can be a powerful tool to increase the tension and hook your readers. It makes them ask questions, and it makes them just have to read on.

Now we’ve come to the end of this post, think about your current WIP. Are there instances where you’ve revealed too much backstory, too soon? Is there an alternative, more tension-filled way to reveal your character’s history? Is this backstory event necessary at this point? Does it help to explain your character’s desires, fears and motivations? Does it provide clarity and context to the reader, or does it simply slow the pace?

And, that’s all folks!

Thank you all for coming back this month. I really appreciate every one of you reading, commenting and sharing my posts.

I hope you’re all continuing to stay safe and well in these stressful times, and that your isolation is still filled with phone calls, messages, Skype sessions and other such contact from friends and family.

I’m still looking for ideas for upcoming blogs. In appreciation, I will award a 30 minute Skype session to the person who comes up with the idea I choose J Make sure you comment on the blog itself to be entered into the draw.

Congratulations HELEN W once again, for suggesting this month’s topic. I hope I answered at least some of your questions around the topic of backstory.

Once again, thanks so much for stopping by. Please stay safe, stay happy and I hope to see you all again in June J

Michelle xx


Michelle Somers

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Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she’s a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she’ll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.

She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making, and Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.

In between books, she runs workshops – both face-to-face and online – for writers wanting to hone their craft. The first book in her Simply Writing Series, Simply Synopsis, is changing the way writers craft this vital, yet perplexing, writing tool. And through her Simply Writing series of blogs, she hopes to simplify so much more.

You can find out all about Michelle, her adventures and her books at her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Michelle, for picking my suggestion, I can’t wait for our chat! It was wonderful of you to include your examples as seeing it makes much more sense for me.

  2. Thanks Michelle, This is a fantastic read. It took a long while to get that hang of weaving back story in gradually and in ways that led the story forward, but think I am much better at this now. I used to love flashbacks, but critique partners and comp feedback has rid me of the habit. I agree, not a writing strategy for novice writers!

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