Backstory is an essential part of creating a fully-rounded character that readers want to follow. Why then, does it have such a bad rep?
Think about it. You meet someone at a cocktail party. He starts in, telling you his life story. We’ve all met someone like that, right? How long does it take your eyes to glaze over? Exactly.
When you put backstory in the first three chapters of a book, YOU are that guy.
Why? Because backstory halts the present momentum for a trip to the past. You do not want to do that in the precious first chapters, when you’re trying to hook the reader. Most of us use backstory mechanically. We look at it as a way of rounding out the character, explaining their motivations and inner conflicts. If we saw backstory as we do in real life, instead of mechanically, it would be much easier to handle. What’s the difference?
This is what we see in real life:
A seven-year-old girl sits watching a beauty pageant intently. She is big for her age and slightly plump. She has frizzy hair and wears black rimmed glasses. She studies the show earnestly. Then, using a remote, she freezes the image. Absently, she holds up one hand and mimics the waving style of Miss America. She rewinds and starts all over again.
You understand, in one picture, or paragraph, this girl’s wants – her motivation and her conflict.
You see, what is important in backstory isn’t what happened to the character. It’s what they took away from the experience. It helped form how they see the world. Think of all your experiences in your life a pair of eyeglasses you wear. I have mine. Your character has his. We all look at the same things, but how we feel about them, and react to them, is influenced by the prescription in our lenses.
The key is getting the reader to know the protagonist before you add backstory, rather than getting the reader to know the protagonist through backstory.
How do you do that?
The brilliant Margie Lawson suggests looking at the protagonist’s past like a multi-colored Mexican ceramic plate. Before you start writing the book, you take that plate, and drop it on the floor, shattering it into pieces. Then, at strategic spots in the book, you fit a piece here, a piece there. But only the size, and color of the sliver that fits.
What are these pieces made of how do you insert them?
Say your protag spent nine months in prison. Instead of blurting it out, or worse yet, shoehorning it in, think of how the experience would have affected that person. How do they see the world differently than you or me? Do they jump at loud noises? Are they claustrophobic? Closed off and defensive? Do they love being out-of-doors? Show that, first. If you leave enough tantalizing hints, the reader will want to know the whole story. Then you’ve got them.
How many times a day do you think about your past, out of the blue? Especially if they’re painful topics that you’d rather avoid? Not often, I’ll wager. A character’s thoughts come from what happens around him. Unless something happened to trigger that memory, they’re not going to think it. So, if you want to reveal more, think of what would trigger that memory.
When I was in immersion class with Margie Lawson I was working on a book. I had the protag’s past come as a huge, thought-only flashback scene. I read it to Margie, and she told me, ‘She has to TELL someone.’ But, I argued, she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. “Do I HAVE to?” She smiled sweetly, tipped her head and said, ‘Only if you want to sell this book.’
And you know what? She was right.
Last, and least – Flashbacks
Flashbacks are overused. Like beginning a book with a person waking, or looking in a mirror—you’d better have a very good reason to do it, and you must do in VERY well, to get away with it.
How do you get in and out of a flashback, so it flows naturally? The easiest way is a strong sensory detail that triggers the flashback. It can be visual, or a smell. If I catch a whiff of Aramis, it brings my first husband into the room (not in a good way).
If you’ve determined you have to have a flashback (and I’d get a second opinion), keep it short, and use the senses to trigger it. It’ll be more natural.
In editing, go through and highlight all backstory. If you can’t cut it completely, cut it in half. Readers are way smarter than we give them credit for. They get our concept way faster and more completely than you think.
You don’t think so? Once you cut the backstory, send it to your crit partners. I think you’ll be surprised at their positive response.
Above all, don’t be that guy at the cocktail party!
Love this? Check out Laura’s class! Advanced Writing with Laura Drake ~ November 12 – November 25
Laura Drake is a New York published author of Women’s Fiction and Romance.
Her romance series, Sweet on a Cowboy, is set in the world of professional bull riding. Her debut, The Sweet Spot, won the 2014 Romance Writers of America® RITA® award. She also published a four-book small town romance series with Harlequin’s Superomance line. Her latest women’s fiction released January 2016.
Laura is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours. Connect with Laura on Twitter, Facebook, or on Writers in the Storm.
Laura’s LATEST RELEASE:
Carly Beauchamp has loved cowboy Austin Davis since first grade. Ask anyone in their dusty, backwater New Mexico town of Unforgiven, and they’ll say “Carly and Austin” the way some say “big trucks and country boys.” But after years of waiting for a wedding ring, Carly’s done with being a rodeo widow . . .Austin never meant to put his career on the circuit before Carly. She’s always been his future, his one and only. But now that she’s moved on, he’s beginning to see where he went wrong, and he’ll do anything to win her back. The only thing is, Carly’s suddenly acting differently, and she’s definitely hiding a secret—one that will test the depth of their love and open up a whole new world of possibilities.