Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Handle Back Story Like A Boss {Guest Post: Author Carla Laureano}

It's my extreme, bucket list pleasure to host multi-published, RITA (!!) award-winning author Carla Laureano. She's one of my favorites and one of the smartest people I know. Take it away, Carla! 


If there’s one thing that separates the men from the boys…ahem, the skilled writers from the newbies…it’s the handling of back story in a novel. It happens to be one of the areas of writing that has the most “rules” attached, many of them contradictory. Make sure your characters have a history…but don’t tell us about it. Sneak the important information into the text…but don’t info-dump! How do you reconcile those conflicting requirements?

Let’s first take a look at what back story is and isn’t. Wikipedia, that fount of all internet knowledge, defines back story as “a set of events invented for a plot, presented as preceding and leading up to that plot” and adds that it is a literary device “employed to lend depth or believability to the main story.” (See, sometimes Wikipedia is right!) Back story is something that the author uses to give the sense that the characters lived before the story began and will continue to exist after the story ends. It’s the difference between cardboard cutouts and living, breathing people.

Important as this character history is, however, it is not the main story. Spending page time on something that doesn’t relate to the current conflict can stagnate your plot and stall your pacing. So the big question becomes: how do I convey that information in a way that is both effective and seamless?

The key is to limit the information only to what the reader needs to know at this moment. There are three primary ways to do this:

Interior Monologue 

In my contemporary romance Five Days in Skye, heroine Andrea comes off as being completely in control of her life and her future, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I could have easily spent pages detailing the history of her insecurities, but in chapter three where this passage occurs, the reader only needs to know that there is something deeper going on behind the scenes.
As she turned away from the mirror, the gold cross resting at her collarbone caught her eye. Her fingers drifted to the necklace, and she rubbed the cool metal pendant between her fingers. The symbol felt like a lie now. What would her mother think if she could see what she had become? Would she be proud of what Andrea had made of herself? Or would she be disappointed that a piece of jewelry was all she retained of her past?
By detailing Andrea’s thoughts in a short paragraph, I was able to hint that she had once possessed faith and lost it, that she’s running away from her past, and that her mother is either dead or out of the picture, all without exposition or taking the reader out of the current moment. These things are revealed in detail later, but for now, we only need the hint of things to come.


Likewise, dialogue can be a great way to get information about a character’s history without resorting to long passages of narrative that might take the reader out of the moment. In Oath of the Brotherhood, the first book in my Celtic fantasy series, Conor has tentatively made friends with Aine, but he knows very little about her beyond the fact she was raised outside of Seare.

When Aine diverged into specific Ciraean military tactics, Conor just stared at her, speechless. He finally managed to squeeze out, “Where did you learn that?”

Aine blushed. “All highborn children in Aron are schooled in the strategy of warfare, since women can inherit clan leadership.”

“Will you someday?”

“Not likely. I’m third in line after my two uncles. They still drilled these things into my head, though. We studied the Seareann conquest in great depth.”

“Can you fight, too?” Conor asked.

She shrugged. “I have some talent for archery, but I never really applied myself to it.”

During this class session with their tutor, I was able to shed some light on Aine’s personality, her history, and the differences in her upbringing through dialogue, all of which are important in their developing relationship and soon afterward in the plot.


This is the most common place to slip in backstory, through either straight-up author narration or by using visual cues that help fill in the blanks. This method also tends to be most problematic, because many authors simply spend too many words on history that doesn’t directly relate to the story.
I ran up against this problem in my upcoming contemporary, London Tides (June 2015). Understanding my hero’s and heroine’s shared history is key to understanding their current relationship, but it didn’t make sense to have them reflect on their past or discuss events for which they were both present. I got around this by using physical description of significant objects (along with a little interior monologue) to convey the necessary information.
[Grace] bypassed Ian’s room and wandered into the spare he had set up as a gym. A weight bench with a rack of free weights stood in one corner, while his rowing machine—the erg as rowers called it—took up the center of the room. On the far side lay his trophy wall, displaying a collection of shadow-boxed medals and framed photos.

There were several pictures of Ian with his Cambridge crewmates in their iconic light blue blazers, along with framed newspaper articles showing the outcomes of the five Oxford-Cambridge Boat Races he’d rowed in—four wins, one loss. Five world championship gold medals from his time on the British national team, one in the juniors and four more in men’s and veterans’ classes. And in the place of honor in the middle, his framed Olympic silver medal.

Grace remembered when he had won that, or lost the gold, as he regarded it. Three full boat lengths ahead of bronze, and yet it was the half-second behind gold that had haunted him.

In three paragraphs, we get a clear picture of what kind of man Ian is and the successful career he had given up for Grace over a decade ago. Since long passages of this type quickly get clunky, I limited the amount of narration and immediately got back to the action of the story.

Now it’s your turn: what’s your biggest challenge with back story in your current manuscript? What’s your favorite method for conveying character history? 

{GIVEAWAY} Comment below to win Carla's latest Celtic fantasy release, Beneath the Forsaken City, the anticipated second installment in the Song of Seare series. (US residents only, please)


About the Author:

Carla Laureano is the RITA® Award winning author of FIVE DAYS IN SKYE and the Celtic fantasy series The Song of Seare (as C.E. Laureano). She's an avid cook, an enthusiastic but untalented singer, and a thwarted world-traveler. She currently lives in Denver with her patient husband and two rambunctious sons.

Connect with her at:

Web | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | Pinterest


{About Beneath the Forsaken City}

Conor and Aine have barely escaped Seare with their lives. Conor knows he must return to find the harp that could end the Red Druid’s reign of terror, but in the midst of their escape, he and Aine are torn apart once more. 

Surrounded by despair and thrown into as much danger as they left behind, Conor and Aine must cling to the whispers of Comdiu’s plans for them and the homeland that depends on their survival. But at what cost? 

Will they learn to depend on Comdiu completely? Or will they give up hope?


Laurie Tomlinson said...

Yay! So glad you're here! I'm actually having quite the predicament in my current WIP as both the hero/heroine's lives significantly changed a few months before they met. But I can't have them meeting in the second chapter, can I?

Excellent tips for us on making backstory a strategic sprinkle instead of a huge info dump :)

Carla Laureano said...

It's always quite challenging, and in that last book, my editor told me that too MUCH hinged on the backstory. I ended up having to much simplify the history to make it understandable to the reader... but that's all information for another post.

Then there's the question-- if all the interesting stuff happened before my story begins, am I really starting my book in the right place. Eek!

Thanks again for hosting me, Laurie, this was fun!

Robin E. Mason said...

I enjoyed reading your article. I create extensive backstory for my people, and admittedly left too much detail in my debut novel. I look it as, "Hey, I know this person, let me introduce you." I don't tell someone everything I know about my sister in the introduction, but she is revealed as time - words, chapters - pass.

My current WIP is the sequel, and some family history and secrets are discovered, as in 1800's. I am trying to keep the balance between using this to set up current day storyline, and getting too involved with the "past-story."

Any thoughts on how best to handle this?

Jeanne Takenaka said...

What a great post, Carla! I hadn't thought through all the ways back story creeps into a story. One way I like to inject backstory is through internal monologue. Just a little here or there, a reaction to something said, something someone else does . . . along those lines.

I loved your examples too. Well done!

FAith A. Colburn said...

Great ideas!

I've been struggling in my current novel with this very thing. My protagonist quits school and becomes a big band singer (a canary) at 15 so she can support herself and her parents. But unlike most young women, she's reluctant. So, while the other girls talk about their boyfriends, they tease her because she doesn't have one. One of them remarks about what a tomboy she is. She thinks about being around drunks when she sings in nightclubs and groans about the uncomfortable girdles and stuff she will have to wear.
I'm sending the book off to my beta readers this week. I hope all of this works.

Heather Marsten said...

I'm writing a memoir in first person so I only know my story. To get the backgrounds of the other people in my life, they tell me their stories. In one scene I'm in a church where testimonies are given and my father stands up and shares his testimony - bits of his history I never heard. Later I'll learn about some of the people by what others tell me.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

We're thrilled to have you at the Alley, Carla!! I love those examples you gave. Such clever, seamless ways of incorporating backstory. So much food for thought here!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thank you, Carla. You gave us some great information! Backstory can be a millstone, but I sometimes think it is a point of wanting to show off all we researched. We did all that work, sure would be nice to tell all.

But like Jeanne said, I've learned to tone it back by something small, like a photo that brings tears or laughter and a short comment. A memory cue that reminds MC of something and a short comment. The key is the backstory MUST be applicable, move the story along, and enhance the moment. I work hard to remember that.

So glad you joined us on the Alley today Carla!!

Angie Dicken said...

Great examples, Carla! I have learned more and more to use dialogue to convey back story. Thanks for sharing on the alley today!

Becky Dempsey said...

I need to work on when to reveal certain parts of the backstory and not do it too early or too late.

Laurie Tomlinson said...

Great discussion here today! I'm glad we can all agree that back story is a monumental and strategic skill to master :)

Krista Phillips said...

GREAT information!!!

Backstory thoroughly confused me when I first stepped into the writing world... but mostly because SO MANY authors still used info dumps. I grew up devouring books with backstory, although I MUCH prefer the newer style of being smart about inserting it. I'm a huge fan of dialogue, and also just dropping little bits of info throughout.

My most recent book I wrote I used a flashback for the first time... I was (and still am) super nervous about it since it is SO frowned upon, but it was SUCH an important scene for readers to SEE and just lost its flavor to tell it.

Pepper said...

Great post, Carla!! And thank you for being here!
I loved Five Days in Skye! Lovely!!
I'm always afraid of putting too much back story in that my recent editor said I needed more?!? That was a first!

Carla Laureano said...

Holy cow! I got unexpectedly pulled away for the day and when I came back, look at all the comments! Thank you for all the kind words. Okay, let me tackle these in order…

Robin – It’s hard for me to say without actually seeing the manuscript, but family secrets need to be handled much like character backstory…only peppered in where it will move the main story forward. I rarely use this technique, I’ve noticed the most skilled authors use similar themes to link the past and the present together. For example, a widow grieving the death of her husband might find an ancestor’s letter that gives her the thing she needs to move on, etc. Kudos for taking on an ambitious storyline!

Jeanne – Thank you! I like using internal monologue for backstory, though every so often my editor calls me on rambling…oops.

Faith—Sounds like a fun story! I usually ask my beta readers to mark where they find their attention wandering or where they decide they really must get up and put in that second load of laundry. More often than not, that’s where I’ve decided to indulge in my love of backstory…and then snip snip snip… away it goes.

Heather—That sounds like quite a project! It takes a lot of self-reflection to be able to write a memoir. I wish you the best.

Mary—Yes, it’s always amazing how much research we do for so little actual page time, isn’t it? This is definitely one of those “murder your darlings” sorts of situations.

Carla Laureano said...

Karen, Angie, Laurie, Pepper – You guys are too kind. Thanks for the warm welcome!

Becky – That’s always the tricky part, isn’t it, learning to sprinkle the breadcrumbs. I usually ask myself if the character’s actions make sense without that information, and if not, it can often wait. Readers are more intuitive than we often give them credit for.

Krista – Ooh! Sounds intriguing. I’m always nervous when it comes to flashbacks, but I know a lot of authors that use it very seamlessly, especially when the information is just as interesting as the main story.

Thanks again, everyone, for having me and joining the discussion!