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Weaving Your Backstory

I’ve been doing some scouting lately. Have you checked out Kindle Scout? It’s a platform for authors to submit their work and have other readers nominate it to be published. So I’ve been perusing book covers and titles, blurbs and first chapters. It’s made me wish I could contact many of the authors to give them feedback and suggestions, because so many of them have potential but probably won’t be nominated.

The most common problem I’ve been seeing is the ever-so-distracting attempt to shove the whole backstory into the first chapter.

I can see why it might be tempting, but…

DON’T DO IT!

Backstory is crucial. Every made-up world, every magic system, every family or group of friends needs to come from somewhere and have a history. Each character should have one, even minor characters. I don’t say this lightly, as if these backstories will just burst forth from your brain fully formed. It can take a crazy amount of work—thinking, imagining, writing, changing, thinking some more—to craft these backstories, fit them all together, make up a history of an entire civilization or decide what the dynamic of a high school will look like. To determine the mix of personality and life experiences that will form your characters. An author has to know their characters—especially their main characters—inside and out.

For the moment, I’m going to assume that you have your character and world backgrounds figured out already and just need to determine how to weave that into your story. If your character is fleshed out in your mind, their personality and life experiences will come through naturally, without being shoved unceremoniously in readers’ faces within the first few pages.

The first chapter is your opportunity to grab readers by telling a mini story. That inciting incident, that moment when things change and the character realizes something isn’t right. Such an incident shouldn’t be marred with meandering explanations and memories. Just show me what happens, and be sure to use plenty of dialogue and character interaction as much as possible.

If your inciting incident is a car crash, I don’t want any backstory other than little hints. The kind of car Mary drives might tell me a bit about her monetary or family situation; her destination might tell me whether she works or what she does for fun; any passengers might indicate her closest connections. Some dialogue can certainly tell me what she’s dealing with right now. So Sally can be driving her two daughters to soccer practice in her minivan, arguing about whether or not the oldest can go on a date. Look how much we’ve learned about her! They could even mention the divorce (oh no, Mary and Ted are going through a divorce). That’s a whole family dynamic that was just set up without a useless beginning scene at home where Mary is folding laundry and pondering her rough marriage, her daughters’ needs, and her own upbringing. I don’t tend to care about people when they’re just folding laundry and thinking. Or driving and thinking. Or when the initial action is constantly interrupted with explanations about who people are and how they all fit together. Show that quickly or show it later, but don’t mar that first chapter. We know your characters have interesting backstories to share with us, but there are better ways and better places to do it.

So, how can you weave that backstory in without distracting or boring your readers?

1. First, create curiosity. No matter how you’re going to share backstory, you need to make your readers care about it first; otherwise it feels like an intrusion. Don’t jar readers or take chances with their attention span by interrupting yourself for no reason. If Paul is going in to give his boss bad news, I don’t want to get stuck waiting for that tense moment while I read about the conversation he had with his wife that morning, unless I have some reason to be curious about it. Make me ask a question, and then answer it with some backstory. This can easily be achieved by introducing that memory with a hint of why it’s important.  Maybe he hopes that his boss won’t confirm the accusations his wife was throwing around. What? She was accusing someone? What does it have to do with his boss? You’ve just given a reason for a flashback or brief explanation of the argument.

Or how about, instead of giving me a history of Lacy’s turbulent childhood while she’s staring out a window thinking about it, you have her meet someone and shy away from shaking their hand because human touch is too traumatic for her? Now I want to know why, and you can tell me a little bit about it. But just a little for now. Save a lot of it to be sprinkled into the story where it fits naturally. If you’ve created curiosity, then you have a little niche for a brief explanation. But before summarizing anything within the narration, consider whether it can be done through memories or dialogue instead.

2. Flashbacks, memories, or dreams. All I’m going to say about dreams is: be sure not to overuse it. It can feel like a cop out, like you couldn’t figure out a better way to tell the story. Of course, if the dream is the story—as in, someone discovers they can see the future in their dreams—that’s a different matter. But just throwing a dream in to show a character’s angst can be frustrating to read. Just think about how much you enjoy listening to other people tell you their dreams (unless I’m the only one tends to zone out?).

If it’s been introduced right, a memory flashback can be a great device. It can be put in the middle of a scene or be its own scene. It can be set off clearly by using italics, or introduced by using the past perfect tense {PLEASE use the past perfect tense. If you’re already writing in past tense and are going farther in the past, it’s non-negotiable if you want readers to follow you: “I stared at him, wondering why he hadn’t been nicer earlier this morning.” Or “Rob’s face fell, remembering yesterday’s lunch. They’d been having a great time, until she’d confessed everything.” This can be challenging, especially because once you’re into the flashback, you can switch back to the simple past tense. I like this Grammar Girl explanation, if you need more guidance in this area.}

3. Tell through dialogue: My favorite. One of my most common questions for writers when an explanation is getting too long is, “Can this be explained in dialogue?” It is so much more interesting to read a character telling their story to someone else, with the other person’s reactions, than to just read it straight in the narration. For one thing, dialogue breaks it up and makes it less daunting for your patient-deficient readers. (I have been known to skip descriptions and go straight to the next bit of dialogue when reading.) I want to see how people interact, because that’s what moves relationships and personalities. I want to hear how a character will describe their experiences and how they were affected by them, and I really want to hear how their friend, family member, new acquaintance, or love interest will respond. This is how relationships deepen. Think about how often this tactic is used in movies. It’s ready-made conversation meat, and it moves the plot forward.

Dialogue like this should be done carefully, with plenty of small pauses to indicate tone of voice, changing emotions, facial expressions, and reactions from the listener. Avoid long monologues; those aren’t a whole lot better than narrative info dumps, and they don’t utilize the emotions of both characters. The speaker can hesitate or swallow. The listener can interject. Either can look away, close their eyes, scowl, grin, or take the other’s hand. In a way, these reactions can guide readers’ reactions, the way music in a movie guides our reactions and expectations.

Be aware of the balance you strike between real-to-life dialogue and too-perfect storytelling within the dialogue. Obviously we don’t want to read a story told the way most people would actually tell it in real life: “So he called and he was like, ‘hey, should we go to dinner?’ and I was like, ‘yeah, where do you want to go?’ and he was like, ‘I dunno, I haven’t had pizza in awhile, that sounds kind of good.’ I was kind of like, ugh, that doesn’t sound good, but I totally wanted to go out with him, so that’s what we’re doing.” Unless of course you want your character to sound like a ditzy teenager, but even then, I think most people would go nuts reading this. (Even though we really do talk like that…and not just the teenagers.) But at the same time, it doesn’t feel realistic to read a character telling a story exactly how the narration would tell it: “Ben called me a while ago and asked, ‘Hey, should we go to dinner?’ I tried not to let him hear the thrill in my voice as I nonchalantly responded, ‘Yeah, where do you want to go?’” People definitely don’t tell stories that way. It needs to be somewhere in the middle.

Backstory can be included in dialogue and interactions without someone coming right out and telling their story, as well. A character’s gut reaction to events or unfiltered dialogue will give an alert reader just as much information as if they’d shared an experience, and can feel more natural.

I’m convinced that the way backstory is revealed—whether dumped awkwardly in the middle of a chapter or naturally woven into the action and interactions–can make or break a story.  Give plenty of thought to how you’ll do it, try different tactics, and get feedback from others. Skilled backstory weaving will spice up and deepen your characters, making them relatable and unforgettable for readers.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Weaving Your Backstory”

  1. Yes!! To all of this! I totally skip over long paragraphs of explanations and I hate having to read backstory without an ongoing story.

    I LOVE wondering and waiting to find out info! It’s so much more compelling and much more true to life. When you meet someone you don’t get all their info at once. We slowly learn about other through sharing experiences.

    Nice Jana !

    Like

  2. Heck. YES. This is one of the things that makes Harry Potter awesome. A rich, complete backstory that is told through the story itself! And so true about reactions and swallows and looking away. Those little details are my favorite part of reading a book, whether it’s during the telling of a backstory or not.

    Like

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