Something I have biiiiiiiiiig problems with.
Of course, as soon as I hit send on my submission, I started thinking of how I could have made it better. Not to mention reading a couple of excellent entries from writing pals. Nothing like reading truly sensational writing to give that “Eep, mine’s even worse than I thought it was,” feeling.
Subtly handling backstory without lapsing into infodump is one of the many things I really need to work on. I know my characters so well, I could spend the first three chapters just on backstory. I want to tell everyone everything I know about these people who are so fascinating to me! Not that anyone would read that far without either falling asleep in boredom or throwing the book against the wall in frustration at waiting so long for something to actually happen. I am the queen of infodump. I thought I’d solved that on the fifteenth edit of the first chapter, but maybe not!
This blog post from agent Rachelle Gardner talks about keeping the reader guessing instead of telling them even a few words more than they need to know at that stage of the story.
There are ways to bring the backstory into the book, and the key is to do it slowly. Think about giving just enough information to illuminate one tiny aspect of your character at a time. Place your characters in situations, let them react, and let your reader wonder how they got there and why they reacted that way. You want to be strategic, almost cunning, in the way that you let little bits of information from the past appear on the page. Use those pieces of backstory to slowly and carefully flesh out that character, never giving away too much, always leaving the reader guessing a little.
That’s one of the things that keeps readers going – when they’re asking themselves questions about your character. They want to know more and so they become engaged in the story. If you try to feed them all the information they could possibly need right up front, readers aren’t experiencing that desire for more. You could lose them.
Think of backstory as a precious commodity of which you are the guardian. You will release it on a need-to-know basis. Only give the reader what they need for that moment of the story, just little bits here and there. Be stingy with it. Keep the forward momentum of the story going.
Fabulous advice. I tend to want to explain my characters’ motivations too much too soon. The reader needs just enough information to stop her jumping so far to the wrong conclusions about the character’s motivation that she stops reading. Enough to keep her interested, wanting to find out more. But not telling her everything. Why should she keep reading? And on the other hand not misleading her. I hate those stories where the writer is keeping key information secret from the reader, to be revealed at the end in a deus ex machina type resolution.
It works well when the reader knows something about a character what the other character doesn’t yet. The reader keeps reading, waiting to see when it will be revealed and how the characters will react. But it still needs to be dripped in, on a need to know basis, as an organic part of the unfolding story.
I just realised something. The reason backstory takes the reader out of the flow of the story is that it’s often cerebral, detached from the moment, even if it’s done in dialogue or internal monologue. The character is telling us the past or telling us about themselves. We’re getting told not shown.
Can I find ways to ground the information about the character’s past in present events, in physical sensation and emotions? And even then, only give the minimum necessary information? If the heroine gets tongue-tied, dry mouthed, and shaky around the hero when they first meet, does the reader need to know she’s always been like this around guys she finds attractive, even since Ryan Mitchell, the cutest guy in the class, who she’d had a crush on all year, came over and sat next to her at the school dance when she was fourteen, and she couldn’t even squeak out a “Hi” so he walked away, and by the end of the night had hooked up with another girl who he dated for the rest of the year, while at twenty-four the heroine’s still never really had a date? In a short category romance, I don’t have the word count to go into that, I need to stay focused in the moment. In a longer more humorous women’s fiction piece, I might stay in the moment for the meeting but have her recount to her girlfriends later that it was “Ryan Mitchell all over again,” if I want to choose that way to have the reader find out more about her spectacular lack of romatic success so far. But the Ryan Mitchell thing is both too much information and drags the reader out of the physicality of the moment if I drop that in at the time.
It’s especially relevant to me now, as I move on to editing chapter two. The hero takes the heroine back to his island birthplace, back to the place and the people he left behind 12 years ago. There’s a lot I want to tell the reader about his past history there. I need to be very careful both in how I do it, and when I do it. There may be a lot I know that the reader never needs to know. There may be some things that need to be hinted at now so the reader doesn’t feel cheated if it turns out to be important later. There may be some things that impact enough on the present events that the reader needs to know right now.
This is getting complex. So many levels of “need to know”! There’s what I need to know as the writer to understand these characters and their goals and motivations fully. There’s what the readers need to know to keep them interested in the characters and the story, right through to a satisfying ending. There’s what the characters need to know about themselves and each other at each stage of the story. All of these will be different.
This is what one of the Mills and Boon editors put about backstory on a detailed rejection letter one of my fabulous and talented writing buddies received-
the reader becomes bogged down by unnecessary exposition. It is often best to reveal back story through action, when it has the most impact on the story and the characters.
I’m still not 100% sure how to do that. Looks like I better learn, PDQ!
Okay, edited again to add more links! Looks like it’s backstory learning day today because everywhere I go I’m seeing stuff about backstory, without even looking. Or is it just that because I’m thinking about backstory today I’m noticing it? Whatever.
Anyway, found this post and this one on Romance University that add more to this. The first one has jolted me out of a belief I had about backstory and motivation- that characters need backstory to explain motivation. Editor Theresa Stevens makes a strong point that goes against what I thought I knew-
beware the backstory used to shore up character motivations. It often points to a lack of real conflict or to other plot problems. Every time you’re tempted to reach backwards to explain why characters are behaving a certain way, stop. Ask yourself if you can fix it in the present story moment, because this will almost always be the stronger fix.
Oops. I do this all the time- try to explain present behaviour using the past. But how much better to use present events to explain the character’s motivations or beliefs! She uses a great example of the impact on story of a hero not trusting the heroine because of his past failed marriage, or because he actually sees the heroine doing something that appears untrustworthy. No need for backstory at all, it’s all happening in the now. Woo-eee! This ones almost a paradigm shift for me. I need to think hard about how I can apply this to Luk and Emma. She also gives an example of using setting- how things are now in the character’s life- to illustrate backstory without spelling it out too much. Yippee! I did get that one right for Emma, as the first chapter was set in her home (once her grandmother’s) and I hope I managed to give a lot of information about her life and relationship with her grandmother in just a couple of sentences about the sitting room.
The other post focuses more on a specific issue, illustrating motivation that does stem from past events without the info dump. I like the way Theresa says something very similar to the post I started with this morning-
In the process, some backstory will be more naturally revealed. How much? Exactly enough for the argument (or current situation- my addition) between them to proceed to its conclusion. And not a drop more. Your job at this point is not to “fill the reader in” on all the details of the landscape. Your job is to lure them in with conflict and dynamic change, and keep them guessing.In other words, don’t give them enough information to explain everything that happens on the *current* page. Give them just enough – just barely enough – to get them to the *next* page. Otherwise, you’re in danger of undercutting your conflict by explaining it away.
Good stuff. Relevant stuff. Now I just gotta apply it to the rest of Luk and Emma’s story.