Home    Workshops    Members Only    Contests    Join    Contact us                       RWA Chapter

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Backstory Breakdown by Shelley Martin

Every character has a backstory. The problem is: how do we reveal their past without info dumping or other blunders? This is something all writers struggle with, including me. Here’s a breakdown of different forms backstory can take, and tips to make it work.

The Prologue. Prologues in the past were a common occurrence. But now they’ve fallen into the backstory category. Most often than not, the prologue is backstory. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when it can be woven into the story instead of floating on its own, then do it. Yes, it’s extra work, but it’s always better to start with immediate action right out the gate.
The Info Dump. This is where something happens to a character, and the author breaks into the story to tell why what’s happening is important. For example- “George the Gladiator lifted his new helmet in salute before sliding it on. Little did he know, the helmet had been the downfall of every gladiator who’d worn it before. Malley the Masculine died from a blade to the eye, while the helmet simply slid off the head of Homer the Hairless…” I could go on, but hopefully you see that we went from the story of George, to a list of a bunch of other guys we’ve never heard of, or care about. George is about to go into battle and the reader wants to know if he’s going to survive, not how Homer the Hairless died. George could find out the info of the helmet by reading it in a scroll after the battle, or hearing about it from a friend. There are many ways to get this info to George and the reader. Be creative!

The Dream. Here’s where the character slips into a dream, and relives a traumatizing past (or silly, or revealing, you get the picture). Unfortunately, this technique has been overused in the extreme. While it can still be used as a valuable way to explore the past, I urge you to use this method sparingly.

Old Friends Reminiscing. This is one of my favorite techniques. Introduce the crazy friend from the past, or snarky ex, and open those past wounds. Two buds can share a glass of wine and say “Remember when you cast that spell that made your mom sneeze fire?” In that one line we learned the character is good with fire magic, and has a mischievous side. However, I urge you to avoid starting with “As you know, Maude, the new T-75 laser model fires at a bandwidth of…” If Maude already knew what bandwidth the laser fired at, then there’s no reason to share that information. The “As you know…” starter has also been used in excess in the past and should be avoided.
Paragraph Two. This is a pet peeve of mine. You’ve opened up with a great line, which turns into a fantastic opening paragraph. You’ve got me hooked. Then paragraph two starts with “Earlier that morning, as I ate my cereal and read the box, I would have never thought my day would have turned out like this. I brushed my teeth and chose my clothes, searching for my favorite shirt…” Anyone asleep, yet? It seems this most often occurs when authors start out with “I brushed my teeth and chose my clothes…” Then, someone tells them to liven it up. So they write this great paragraph of what’s going to happen at the end of the day, and stick it at the front to draw you in. That’s a no-no. Put in the elbow grease and rewrite the whole opener, please. I always walk away from stories like this, and they happen quite often, believe me.

Storytelling. What’s this? Using storytelling to tell a backstory? Yeppers! This works especially well in fantasy and paranormal tales. This is where one person relays a quick story of the whereabouts of a mythical sword, or the tragic life of a paranormal creature, etc.  It can be a bedtime story, a lesson, or a warning on a wall. The important thing is to remember to keep it short. One page is best (double spaced). If the story happens to be longer, then split it up. Have the storyteller get interrupted, then have the receiver of the story ask for more in the following chapter. These can also make great shorts if you want to release them in an extended version, separate from your story. Or it can be an added bonus at the end of a series.
Backstory is often seen as a villain, but it can be your friend, too. I hope these tips can help you beat that backstory into submission. And if it helps, write the backstory out on a completely separate page. Then break it up and weave it into your manuscript. Sometimes after you get it all out, you can trim the excess to make it quick, snappy, and to the point. And that’s usually what your reader wants: just enough to help them along, but not so much that it will yank them from the current story they are falling in love with.

Shelley Martin taught kindergarten and ran cattle; once upon a time.  She’s now an award winning author, mother and wife, and loves living in North Idaho.  Her imagination has always plagued her, the characters jumping into her head at some random song or thought.  She started writing when she was ten, finishing her first short story when she was eleven.  The paranormal has always fascinated her, and nothing draws her to the page more than the whisperings of fantastical creatures. Shelley loves to hear from her readers!  You can reach her at Shelleymartinfiction@gmail.com


Tana Essary said...

"Thanks for the great information about how to properly integrate back story," she pronounced enthusiastically.

Just earlier that morning she had been contemplating that very thing as she added cream to her weak coffee, and two lumps of sugar. Always two lumps.

Her mother always told her that coffee with too much sugar would rot her teeth. Her mother never gave her encouragement about anything. Ever.

Even when she was a little girl, entering her first poetry contest, her mother told her not to get her hopes up.

Some things never changed.

Anonymous said...

Good points! Nobody likes to get bogged down in a story. It's like biting into a what you think is a jelly donut and finding green peas inside. Ewww.

:) Virginia

Brooklyn Ann said...

Excellent post and a much needed reminder for everyone.

Shelley Martin said...

Thank you so much everyone *trying not to imagine biting into a green pea donut...*

Asa Maria Bradley said...

I want to know more about your backstory on cattle running! :-)