Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spine Tingling Backstory

Do you want to know how to write spine tingling backstory that will grab your readers and inform them at the same time? Well, I'm here to tell you that backstory rarely ever tingles the spine. Oh, it may send shivers of dread up the spines of your critique partners. It may send tingles of revulsion up the spines of your contest judges. But rarely does it cause shivers of delight.

Would that it could.

We want so much to dump that info. We want to tell our readers a little background so they can really understand our heroine. We "need" to spill the beans so our readers aren't confused, right?


Backstory is just an info dump. A smelly place where a bunch of telling happens. Readers don't want to be told. They want to experience. Dumping info on a reader jolts them out of the action and puts them in their pajamas to snooze away through the pages of your "telling".

So how do you let your readers in on information you think is pertinent? Here are a few ideas:

1. Scatter backstory a sentence at a time throughout your manuscript. I think Julie Lessman is brilliant at this. Consider the first sentence of her book, A Passion Most Pure.
"Sisters are overrated, she decided. Not all of them, of course, only the beautiful ones who never let you forget it."  
Brilliant! She hints at the sister rivalry and sets up conflict for a love triangle. This is by far the best way to add backstory.

2. You could add a prologue, setting the stage for your story. I've heard mixed reviews about prologues. It is an active way of giving your readers a background for your heroine, but some feel it is what it is...backstory.

3. There's always the "flashback", where a memory triggers a scene played out in the current POV's mind. I used this device in my first chapter, but goodness, it is way too long and needs to be redone. Everything in moderation, right?

4. Your heroine could have a memory of her past. This is different from the flashback in that it is not a scene. I think it is useful in getting your heroine's emotions to the forefront and making your readers "feel".

With all these devices, you want to use them sparingly. Too much is dumping. And your writing will stink with the stench of TMI (Too Much Information).

You want your readers to keep turning the page. Keep them guessing, and don't spill the beans to early. Feed them information on a "need to know" basis. It's better to have too little backstory than too much.

And that, my friends, is all I know regarding backstory. If anyone has any hints or has found a unique way of delving out the backstory, please share!



Diane said...

Great tips! Love your examples. :O)

Jody Hedlund said...

Great ideas, Sherrinda! Yes, I think it's best to try to weave it in. A few sentences here and there. Hinting at the past in short bursts--especially in chapter one. But I also think there is a place for a bit longer backstory in the early chapters. It's just that we don't want to take the reader out of the story when we give it, so need to look for ways to weave it in.

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

Jody says it best!

I try to give my readers bits and pieces of backstory as it relates to the ongoing story line. I hate to be going fast forward in a story and then have to stop for pages to go back to the beginning or before it to find out things about the character. I'd rather see them develop with the story line.

Keli Gwyn said...

Sherrinda, great tips shared in an entertaining way. You have such a delightful Voice. I'm sooo impressed.

Backstory could be seen as one way to spice up a story. Little snippets sprinkled throughout, added only when they are necessary for the reader's understanding, serve a valuable purpose. However, just as we can add too many spices to our culinary concoctions and spoil the taste, too much backstory can slow things down and give the reader a bad taste in her mouth. If backstory were in a jar in my writerly spice cabinet, it would have a warning on the label: use sparingly.

Jeanette Levellie said...

Perfect! Thank you so much. I like the idea of hinting. I've also noticed triggers work well--a smell, a sight or sound triggers a memory that allows the writer to add some back story.

You have grown like a lovely olive tree, Sherrinda--from shaky little twig a year or so ago to giving nourishment to others now. I'm so proud of you, and so impressed with God for all He's doing in your life. Wow!

Jannalou said...

I think it depends on the narrator, too. When I'm writing YA fiction, I usually write in first person present tense, and it makes sense to have the main character fill in back story when things come up. My main characters usually have a fairly conversational manner of telling their stories, so the back story gets filled in the same way we would fill in our friends as we're telling them about something that happened to us recently.

As an example, I have a main character whose parents are divorced - long divorced, by the time her story is being told. Part of her story includes her father coming back into her life after two years of no contact, and part of it includes her dealing with interpersonal conflict with her mother. So while the specific details of her parents' divorce aren't really important to the story, the back stories about her previous relationship with her father and the reasons for her conflicted relationship with her mother are very important plot points that she reveals when those things occur to her as she tells her story.

Back story in sequels, however, is just annoying. I hate it. Therefore, in the sequels to the above story (which are told from other characters' points of view), there are very few mentions made of what happened in previous stories, unless those events directly impact the main plot of the new story.

I hope that all made sense...!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Good tips. I like number one the best and saw it done recently very well in a story I'm critiquing. Dropping in those vague but intriguing lines early in the story, hinting at something big in the character's past, definitely makes me want to keep reading instead of put the book down.

Linda Kage said...

Wonderful. Thank you.

Bess said...

I'm struggling with this right now. I submitted my revised first chapter to my critique group and was praised for the moving action. Except one partner said he wanted to see a little more information about the heroine. Gah. I either go too far one way, or too far the other.

Casey said...

Goodness, you are popular this morning!!

Great post and I agree. My coach had me cut my prologue because even though the writing was good, my story really didn't grab her emotionally until about the first chapter. Away it went!

But then you have other authors like Lynn Austin where the story is backstory. :) It's all in the style.

The best author I have ever read for a flashback is Denise Hunter. She takes you in and out of the moment without really knowing you left. Very good.

Loved your post. :)

Krista Phillips said...

Well said!

I've heard the no prologue advice, and actually no flashbackstoo, a lot. Even a detailed memory can be too much early in the book.

I LOVE the idea of "hinting" and that's what I use the most. I do have a few flash backs, but none in the first few chapters of the book.

The thing is to give them enough hinting to keep them wanting more, and enough to make your story realistic. That's what I struggle with most. I leave the backstory out, and get feedback like, "Why is the person like this? Why don't they just _____?" The backstory helps give the motivation, but if we give it all at once, our hands are slapped.

Pepper said...

Great post, Sherrinda. To the point!
I love the idea of weaving backstory, hinting...foreshadowing a little bit.
The whole purpose is the grab a reader's attention and keep them reading... instead of skimming.
Thanks for sharing, Sherrinda.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I've heard of the scatter backstory method as well and have seen it in novels. It adds a sense of flow, comfort, soothing, tends to remind at the right time, the benefits could go on and on.....now if only I could master it:)
Great post, Sherrinda

Karen Lange said...

Good post, thanks! It adds so much, and in such a wonderful way.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh goodness! I had a long day at work where I couldn't check for comments and ooo-wheee, what fun I've been missing.

Diane, I agree, Julie Lessman's example is a great one!

Jody, I think you are good at backstory. From what I remember, you wove it in seamlessly! BTW, I sure wish you would get Luther's story published. I really enjoyed that story!

Donna, I'm with you. Jody said it well. I have read books where I got confused and had to go back and see if I missed something and I hate that! There is such a fine line between too little and too much.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

OOooo, Keli, I LOVE you analogy! Spicing up our story, yet not getting it too spicy! ;) And please don't be impressed. I didn't say I "mastered" the art of backstory. I'm just teaching myself. Preaching to myself. Trying to learn along with all writers everywhere.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Jeanette, aren't you the sweetest thing! I WAS so scared when I started this writing journey. God has been so good and so faithful and while I still struggle with the fear and insecurity, I am stepping where He leads...and loving it! :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Jannalou, that makes perfect sense! I hadn't thought about the role the POV plays in backstory. I can see how first person would lend itself better to explaining the backstory better than third person, which is what I like to write in. What a great thought!

Cindy, yes, the vague and intriguing lines seem to grab the reader much better than anything else. I'm hoping to do away with alot of my backstory and do the "vague thing". :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Linda, you are so very welcome, friend. :)

Shmologna, I hate that!!! I worked and worked to get as little backstory as possible when I first started my MS, then my dad (an editor) kept getting confused, as did one of my crit partners at the time. It was depressing. Now I've reverted back to too much, I think. lol

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Aww, my Alley Friends, I love it when you comment. :) You all are so encouraging. I must say I don't feel like I have a good grasp on this topic, so I felt a little hypocritical writing it! lol. I'm teaching myself and maybe I can learn something in the meantime! lolol

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Karen, thanks! As I said before, I don't feel like I know a whole lot about backstory. I know I haven't mastered it yet!!!

Unknown said...

All great tips! I think number one is my favorite though.

A way that I've seen this done well is to reveal it through dialogue between characters. It's a good way to progress the story without appearing to bog people down.

I always think of the role that Dill played in "To Kill a Mockingbird". Coming in to an existing setting as a newcomer allowed for the reader to learn backstory through his eyes while seeming natural. I've always thought that was super clever.

For me, huge chunks of backstory are more captivating about 1/3 of the way in. That way I'm already hooked and wanting to know at that point.

Great article! So well written and practical! :)

Casey said...

Oh I understand hypocritical- I feel that way ALL the time! But I like to look at it this way-- I have SO much room to grow, but talking about it and writing it out actually helps me solidify the facts. Helps me work through it and is more for me than anything else! So glad someone else feels the same way. ;)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Casey, you are so right! In preparing and writing posts on different topics, I am forced to "know" them...at least know "about" them. I found that to be true when I would lead a Bible study. When I was the leader, I got so much more out of it. :)

Mia said...

Great post, Sherrinda! I have such a difficult time balancing backstory. Some of my books seem to be 50% backstory, while others leave the readers confused because I haven't added enough details. Ick.

I mostly try to weave the backstory in, a sentence here, a detail there. I've found that way it reveals the information needed without being too heavy :)

In my WIP, I actually added one flashback. It caught me by surprise, because it was the first time I ever included a flashback into a story. I'll probably end up deleting it or at the very least, shortening it, in the rewrites, though.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

David, look at you commenting on my post! (I love it!) So you prefer your backstory 1/3 of the way in, huh?

I hadn't thought about introducing a new character in and letting the backstory be "seen" through their eyes. What a great idea!!!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Mia, like you, I added a flashback, but having been thinking about it, I believe it needs to be shortened...if not deleted altogether. I can't decide....:)