Thursday, January 24, 2008

Backstory and How To Use It Effectively

Once backstory is defined, you must decide how to use it in your story for greatest effect. One of the biggest mistakes newer authors make is to think that the reader must know all of the backstory up front. This is not true. Backstory is used by the author to understand the character’s motivation, and information is revealed to the reader only when it is necessary and only in small segments as to not take away from the forward thrust of the novel.

Backstory is used most effectively to create conflict. So this is the author’s first concern. How can the needs and goals of one character be played off the needs and goals of another. Whether suspense, romance, mainstream or women’s fiction, conflict is what hold’s the reader’s attention and what moves the story forward. It’s the driving force of a story.

When you begin to create these needs and goals drawn from backstory motivation, look into other key characters’ pasts and see how their needs and goals can butt heads to create tension. In writing romance, I make sure that the hero and heroine have some opposing needs and personality traits that help to create tension. Though I’ll cover conflict in more detail in later blogs, the kinds of things I do is this:

both characters can be competitive – which automatically creates tension
both characters can want the same goal such as a job promotion
both characters jobs depend on where they live so have them live in different areas or states

Opposites that create tension:
neat and organized vs. messy and laid back
sexual discretion vs. promiscuous
active/go-getter vs. laid-back
career driven vs. career contentment

You get the point. Characters have flaws and personality traits that clash, and these external problems can create story tension. Later, when I talk more about conflict, we’ll look at the deeper types of conflict – the internal as well as external.

The key factor with backstory is what I said earlier, use it with discretion. Some writers try to avoid any backstory in the first 30 to 50 pages of their novels. This means a writer must find ways to present problems and make them realistic without laying out the past issues in the characters lives. The reason for this is backstory is passive. It’s often told in introspection (hopefully not author instruction) and therefore it is telling rather than showing.

Even in dialogue when backstory issues can be discussed, the delivery is basically passive, although through dialogue the author can show the emotional impact of the past on a character. Telling it in dialogue can be more effective than through introspection. Using flashbacks is not advised for a new authors since they are difficult to write and can also jerk the reader from the main story and often can confuse them.

With large blocks of backstory , it is likely you’ll provide more information than the reader needs to know. Readers aren’t dumb, and they like to discover things – or even guess at uncovered pieces of information – as they read. They have the voila moment, and this curiosity is what drives them through the story making it a page-turner. By providing too much information can block the opportunity to surprise the reader.

Hints and foreshadowing, based on the past, is a technique to make your work a page-turner. I use this technique to hint at backstory without providing too much information. For example:

Rachel cringed when Jake had called her pure and sweet. If he only knew the truth. . .
Tom dug the spade into the ground, sweat pouring from his brow as his past shrouded him like a black cloud. He tossed the shovel as far as he could, wishing he could do the same with his horrifying memories.

I hope you can see that both of these examples show how backstory can be revealed first through foreshadowing or hinting at problems without revealing the details. These passages make readers curious and they want to know more. This is an excellent technique that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Another point is that readers care more about characters as they come to know them. A tragic incident in a character’s life will have a much greater impact on the reader once the character has established a home in the reader’s heart.
Remember this about backstory:

Backstory is passive; a compelling novel is active.
Backstory is telling not showing.
Avoid backstory in the first 20 to 50 pages of your novel.
Feed backstory in as needed and only in small pieces.
Restrained use of backstory can create more reader interest and results in a page-turner
Restraining backstory allows readers to get to know the characters more fully
Foreshadowing and hints rather than revealing backstory creates a hook.
Readers aren’t dumb. They want the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.


Camille Cannon (Eide) said...

Thank you Gail. Weaving in backstory is a fine art, and I'm still scribbling. :)

I'm reworking the first 3 chapters of my romance and in order to get the H&H together sooner (by page 20 instead of 60 something...)
I have cut out a lot of stuff. YAY! It's okay, I'm learning to accept the cutting, getting the point that most of that stuff was for me, not the reader. Stuff that acquaints you with the characters, but didn't really advance the story.

But in the current first 24 pages (I want to cut a few more) I have a small incident I need to keep where the heroine notes her preference for a children's book that is important for us to know later. I show her reading it to her students, expressing the faith lesson in the story and giving us a foreshadow of her future faith struggle and the book's importance. (Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace - we find out later the Hero illustrated the book long ago before someone pursuaded him to change careers)

Trouble is, I have to keep it here, do it before she and the hero meet, and this point in the story is the only opportunity she's with her students before H&H meet. So this scene needs to move the story along, but it feels lacking in tension or dramatic buildup. I'm trying to shorten it as much as possible. I wonder if I should add some conflict in the scene, or weave the incident in somewhere else? I wanted to show her actual reaction to her students; her inner push/pull as she shares with them. Maybe I could just deepen her inner conflict over it, would that be enough buildup/tension to keep it in place? Forget about the 20 page goal? (that goal was for critique team purposes)

Shirley Connolly said...

Thank you, Gail, for this excellent article on backstory mistakes we newer fiction authors often make. I am one of them.
I found out how much so when I sent in the first 50 pages of not my first book, but my WIP to a different editor.
She was so great in how she advised me on the mistake I was making right from the beginning of my new story.
I took her advice (in my reworking) and now I take yours to heart.
It's like meeting a new friend. You don't know everything about your friend's past right from the beginning. Those discoveries have to come out only a little at a time. By the time you discover everything you need to know you are such good friends with that person you'll WANT to know whatever they confide in you because that person is your friend!
With a book it is the same.
The reader has to fall in love or at least make friends with the story first. Then no matter what you write, she won't be able to put it down.
Thanks for letting me come by.
Shirley Connolly

Miralee Ferrell said...

Very good advice! I was able to weave small bits of back story into my second book, but didn't feel the need in my first. I'm thankful now, as when I wrote the first, I knew very little about the effective use of back story. These reminders are always timely, thank you for sharing!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Camille -- If the children are young and she's talking about faith, perhaps a child reflects a comment that her/his parents said about faith -- and what the child says is what happens to her in the future. Naturally I don't know your plot, but let's say her faith weakens later in the story. The child might say something negative about believing in God or whatever and she could think how she would never feel that way as she tries to deal with the child's comment.

I just want to remind you that if you're writing a romance novel, the hero and heroine usually meet very early in the story. Remember a romance is about a romance -- and it can't happen until the two meet -- so everyone is waiting for the meeting and won't pay much attention to what happens before that. In category romance, the H & H meet on the 1 page to about the 3rd. 24 pages is really long, even in a single title romance. If you could cut the scenes before or move them to later in the story and have your H & H meet asap, then the story with the children will be after she has meet him and not before. Just something to think about. Thanks for your comment.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Shirley - It's not uncommon for backstory to seep into a book. Occasionally I have a reference to backstory but I try to avoid it. Hinting at backstory is perfectly acceptable. I gave some examples in the blog. Backstory is usually boring, and as you said, the backstory means so much more when the reader has had a chance to get to know the characters first. You have the right idea.

Miralee - Congrats on avoiding backstory. I think some backstory is needed to give depth to the story so that readers understand why the goal is so important or why the need is so great -- but it's better to come later. The writer needs the backstory to devise a compelling story that's like real life. So keep up the good work, limiting backstory, especially in the first chapters.

DayleShockley said...

Gail, I'm looking forward to reading your new book. Thanks for sending me to your blog, as well. Maybe I'll make a stab at writing Christian romance one of these days. And should a book ever come of it, I'll be sure and thank you in my acknowledgements. ;)

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Dayle - That's sweet of you. Thanks, and I hope you find the book helpful.

Wishing you blessings,

Carol Burge said...

Wow, what an informative post! I'm going to jot down what said to remember about backstory.

Thanks for sharing!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Carol - Thanks so much. I suppose you know about my book Writing the Christian Romance. It is packed with so much more than is in this blog and with examples and excerpts. Although it focuses on Christian romance, it still covers all the basics for romance in genre and it draws comparisons between secular and Christian which will also be helpful.

I'm so pleased that the blog is helping you. It makes the work writing it worthwhile.


Faithful said...

I learned a lot from this. Thanks!