B is for Backstory

BLAST_BWelcome to day two of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Yesterday we started the Write On Sisters 3, 2, 1 … BLASTOFF to Stellar Writing series with A for Antagonists.

Today we reverse course and take hold of that sometimes wildly out of control comet, backstory.

Consider backstory the preparation time before the launch. Countless years of research and training go into every step. Someone carefully  designed the rocket, and then others built the rocket. People trained for a decade or longer to join the flight crew. But the real story of any space mission starts at liftoff.

3 Tips for using backstory more effectively:

  • Start slowly. It’s unwise to open any story with pages of history and world building. That’s called a data dump, and for most readers, it ends up feeling like a history lecture. It’s better to go a bit too light on backstory than to go too heavy.

  • Get creative and scatter the backstory around. Bring it in as dialogue, as character memories, and even with your setting descriptions. Use excerpts from letter, or break the fourth wall and tell the reader important facts as the narrator.

  • Dump it. Chances are you have too much backstory. Trust the reader to puzzle things out for themselves. It’s okay to leave readers with a few lingering questions. A book secret is a good thing, and leaves readers wanting more.

2 Examples of good backstory craft:

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I love this book because of the quirky and fantastic way story structure and POV are used. So much of what we learn about the backstory comes from the Guide telling us crazy, mind-bending facts. It’s almost always humorous, and it flawlessly relates to the current plot situation.

I Hunt Killers: Jazz’s dad is a serial killer serving time in prison, but that is all backstory when this novel starts with a copycat killer terrorizing the town. The reader is naturally intrigued by Jazz’s unusual and terrifying childhood, but the author doesn’t tell us the whole crazy story up front. Instead, Jazz’s past is doled out in tiny tidbits throughout the novel, usually sparked by something happening in the present story and always at a moment that adds to the intrigue of the current situation. And the most horrifying backstory reveals coincide with the scary climax in perfect harmony!

1 Link for more help:

I’ve decided to include a link from another blog, because I know you’ll find it helpful.

 http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/03/baby-got-backstory-dealing-with.html

Experiment with new ways of incorporating backstory and you might hit on something that propels your story to the stars.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

30 thoughts on “B is for Backstory”

  1. Don’t panic! You already have enough backstory. What a creative use of it in that book! I hadn’t thought about it before, but you’re right. Awesome example.

    1. Finding the right balance is never easy. It’s all trial and error until you hit on the right level. : ) Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with your project.

  2. This was an extremely informative post. As an unpublished author ( for the time being – here’s hoping ), I struggle with backstory. I’ve read so many different opinions on it, but the best thing I’ve done for my novel ( still in progress ) was to cut the first 40 pages. This was recommeded to me by a successful author and doing so changed my story for the better . Now I have to go back through and leave little snippets from those pages that are necessary to the plot.
    Thanks for the terrific advice and link. Janice Hardy is another blogger /author who writes informative and resourceful post and always goes beyond what anyone should expect in her effort to help newer writers . I am looking forward to reading all
    Of your A to Z post.
    Melissa
    http://fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com
    Sugarlaw13@live.com

    1. Hi Melissa,
      I love that you cut the first 40 pages. Since most early drafts start in the wrong place, the person who advised the cuts did you a huge favor. : ) Good luck with weaving in your backstory. Keep it relevant to the action and you should be fine.

  3. This is a great reminder of the importance and challenge of good backstory. When I am writing plays, it becomes very difficult to apply the “show don’t tell” methodology. Great idea to cut it out after you put it in and to trust your audience/readers.

  4. Backstory.. oh, backstory…
    My biggest challenge in this is when I start writing a story and realize that, really, it is actually just backstory for the REAL story! Sometimes the story I started with ends up being relegated to the “no one will ever read this” pile of backstory material, but other times I am able to find ways to still tell the story.

    1. I do this! I spent years working on a whole constellation of stories (as a teenager). I eventually discovered the shadowy guy in the background of all of them was the only character I really wanted to write, and my problem all along was that I was writing up to him instead of about him. I’ll eventually write this story!

      1. Hannah and Allison,
        I’ve had the same experience. Sometimes who the story is really about will be someone you thought was a secondary character. Some characters just have a way of taking over!

  5. Yep! I’ve read a few novels in which there is too much of a backstory and I feel like I’m waiting and waiting for the author to get to the point. As a reader, I’m more about character development. However, it all needs to balance properly in order to be thoroughly enjoyed. 🙂

    1. Hi Diane,
      I read a book just like that in February. Nothing of any interest happened until I hit the 53% mark. The second half of the book was rushed and ended in a buy the next book cliffhanger. Very disappointing! A better balance of elements would save so many books with great concepts from falling apart.

  6. All great tips, Robin! Especially scattering backstory into dialogue, setting descriptions, etc. where it’s appropriate.

    May I add a tip on working with backstory? One thing I’ve done to prevent backstory dumps in my novel is “dumping” all that information in separate documents. Later, if I think a piece of that information is appropriate for the story, I copy it from the “appendix,” paste it into the story, and revise as necessary. It’s been super-helpful for developing a full understanding of the story’s world without sacrificing pacing or tone in the book itself.

    1. Hi Melanie,
      I’m the same way. I know everything down to the last detail, but I don’t include it in the final draft. Having the information keeps me grounded, but I know it would be counterproductive to make someone else read it all.

  7. I usually end up dumping the backstory. If it is interesting enough to mention more than once, it probably deserves to be in the “present”… otherwise, short and simple, or gone… unless a longer series of stories (like comic books) give it room to be spread out naturally.

    1. I totally agree, Alex. You need to make sure the present plot situation calls for it before it’s included. : )

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