Push em back, push em back, way back!

December 21, 2005 | It's All About Writing

It’s a great Bears (Go Team!) defense team cheer and precisely what you should do with backstory when you’re writing fiction.

What’s backstory? It’s the life chronicle of your characters. All of your characters. Every person in your novel has a past. They think, feel, and act based on their history. Some backstorys are important like the hero and heroine while others are so minor they don’t matter in the full scope.

You’ve written your characterization, which is Thursday’s talk, and now you’re good to go. Wrong!

My Brazen Vixens online group is always willing to read a member’s work and constructively correct the flaws. Kate Lang, (check out her blog at katelang.blogspot.com for a great read) the leader of our pack, sent me an insightful e-mail after reading my first chapter.

“A suggestion is to perhaps cut back on backstory a little. I’d like to see your heroine’s issues be a mystery to me as a reader. After reading the first chapter there’s no mystery. I understand her, I understand her issues, and I know her history. Let her be more of a mystery, don’t tell me everything, let it come out in dribs and drabs.” Kate’s words made me think.

Beth Anderson and Yasmine Phoenix, my critique partners, are brutal with sloughing off. At our next meeting I broached the subject. They both agreed it was “too much, waaaay to soon”. These buds made me think even more. To these three authors I am forever grateful.

This is what I finally learned;

If little Johnny peed his pants in third grade and the teacher shamed him in front of his class, we don’t care. It’s only important as a brief mention or a thought timely planted in the story. Johnny knows what he did and the reader only wants an indication if it brings out some deep dark secret which leads him to act as he does in your book.

This is what I finally figured out to correct my problem;

1 – List all the high points from your characterization. (Don’t panic; remember on Thursday we’ll discuss characterization.) Skip the height, weight, etc. You only want the important events, ie;

a. Johnny peed his pants
b. He feels shame whenever he wears brown
c. He won’t talk in front of groups
d. He has a fear of public bathrooms

Get the idea?

2 – Write your story and drop in a line of backstory here and there but only where it’s appropriate.

3 – Cross out the line from your list after you’ve used it and note in the column which page it’s on.

This method taught me to sprinkle in the backstory for the proper effect and not put the reader in a coma.

Don’t worry, there will be pages in your book with plenty of backstory, but if the timing’s right it’s fine.


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8 Responses to “Push em back, push em back, way back!”

  1. Sherrill Quinn Says:

    Great stuff, Sloane. It’s always very tempting to dump the information on the reader, to get it all out of the way. But it’s not the best way to go about it.

  2. Jenna Howard Says:

    Kewl stuff. I’m always afraid I’m not putting in enough backstory. Sigh.

    Yeah…I got nothing. And no…I’m not sick.

  3. Sloane Says:

    Sherrill, what the hell are you doing here! Get back to your blog on Torrid and could you move the straw just a tad?

    Diva, I’m in shock and highly disappointed.

    You girls all ready know how to work the backstory and do a damned fine job.

  4. Sherrill Quinn Says:

    Hey! 20 years in Human Resoures has not only made me a terrific bullshitter, but I’m a whiz at multi-tasking, too. 🙂 I’m paying attention over at Torrid, surfing some blogs, AND writing (or, at least, endeavoring to write) a synopsis for The Praetorians so I can get this baby submitted.

    I’d love to move the straw, but Santa’s actually a little shy, which is why he’s got his hat partially covering his face.

    But, when you can look at his body, who needs to see the face? LOL

  5. Sloane Says:

    Multi-tasking is good but you need to sell yourself and Torrid blogging is your prime opportunity. Now get back there and WORK IT!!

    Too bad about Santa. Damn, he’s H. O. T…

  6. For The Trees Says:

    Um, backstory. Hints on doing backstory.

    I’m beginning to see that I need to go back and re-read my three books, and really dig through them with a fine-toothed comb. There’s an AWFUL lot of stuff I’m learning that I probably didn’t do right the first time around.

    That’s what I get for editing and proofreading my own stuff. Problem is, I don’t get enough time or story in at my local writers’ group to get a really in-depth critique. I’ve GOT to find a good critique partner! I’ve GOT to!

    Okay, Santa, bring me a GOOD critique partner! Thanks! Oh, don’t worry about the reindeer droppings – I’ll just sweep them up after they dry. No, really, it’s okay. Thanks again! See you next year!

    Merry Christmas, Sloane – hope you and all yours have a WONDERFUL holiday!

  7. Sloane Says:

    The same to you and Sherry, Forrest. Here’s also hoping you have a Prosperous New Year with a wonderful critique partner. Enjoy your holidays.

  8. Yasmine Says:

    Sloane, can you address the question of when there is so much backstory you’ve got another book for one of the characters? Just making you work, honey. Now, back to editing Teddi and David. You remember them don’t you? Last I read, they were caught in suspended sex, that’s gotta hurt.