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Backstory is crucial to the novel writing process. It gives your character substance and drive while adding depth, history and realism to your fiction. It takes a great deal of hard work to develop your character’s backstory. Unfortunately for the sake of the novel, much of that hard work ends up on the cutting room floor.
That doesn’t mean all that hard work has gone to waste. There are many ways for you to repurpose those backstories into moneymaking and author platform building opportunities.
Shennandoah Diaz is a writer and freelance Branding and Communications expert based out of Austin, Texas. Diaz works with independent publishers, small businesses, experts, and authors to build killer brands and engaging content. Passionate about education, Diaz teaches workshops for the Writer’s League of Texas and other professional organizations that empower writers to take charge of their brand and their writing career. Learn more by visiting shennandoahdiaz.com or follow her on Twitter (@shennandoahdiaz).
1. Short Stories for Submission
Often our character backstory is centered on a core event that changes the character’s life in a big way. That dramatic event is a great point of focus for a short story. Short stories can range from flash fiction as short as six words to works as long as 5,000–20,000 words. There are dozens of contests and outlets, both paying and non-paying, that publish short stories on a continual basis. Some outlets that post these opportunities include Duotrope, local writing groups, area universities, and of course there are several competitions throughout the year hosted by Writer’s Digest. Duotrope also allows you to create an account to track submissions so you know what you sent, where, and when.
Each published piece is more than just a feather in your cap. It helps you prove your characters’ appeal and story premise in a paying market, demonstrates that you are a writer who can deliver, and helps you start getting paid for the work you’re already doing.
2. Website Freebies
It is crucial for an author to invest in building his or her platform on an ongoing basis. Digital media requires regular content to attract attention and followers. Backstories packaged as short stories, blog posts and vignettes make great content for author websites and fans. You can wait until after you’ve tried publishing through a paying outlet, or go ahead and offer it as a free download on your website as a way to attract readers and thank your existing fans.
Just remember to edit carefully, and if possible, get a second pair of eyes on your work before you post it for the world to see. There are many freelance editors available who can provide a professional critique of your work for a nominal fee. The expense is worth it when it comes to your website and author platform development. You want to make sure you’re always putting your best foot forward, and don’t want to get caught posting a story that doesn’t flow or that contains improper grammar.
The nonfiction research you did for your story is also great to share. The nonfiction or “truth” side to every story is a major contributor to creating interest for your book. Did you research vintage balloons for your story? Write a blog post about it. Did you visit an old ghost town for the setting of your novel? Share the pictures you took. Maps, historical information, how-tos, diagrams and other informative pieces bring life and context to your work. Most of all, they draw in readers. Share your research as blog posts, downloads, and images. You’ll be surprised how many people you reach that might not have connected with you otherwise.
Stories are told through many media, not just the written word. Video, music, photography, and other art forms are also great ways to convey and share your character’s backstory. Pair up with a local aspiring film director to turn your backstory into a screenplay for a short filmt, or take a cue from Scott Sigler and post the screenplay as a competition for your followers. You can even take it a step further and use your backstories for a series of podcasts to drum up interest in your work.
If you have a pile of nonfiction research on a historic place, profession, or some other aspect of your story, you can turn those into interesting how-to videos and informative podcasts. Many fiction authors have become subject matter experts on things like espionage and dead presidents by employing practices such as these. There are several inexpensive tools available.
Camtasia is great for doing professional looking videos that capture images and presentations on your computer screen. The interface is very simple and easy to use, and there are dozens of tutorials available to get you started. Animoto is great for making mini-videos using photos and stock clips, and requires little to no technical expertise. Their existing storehouse of images and music make it easy to create and share book trailers and mini informative videos in a matter of minutes.
Podcasts have become increasingly popular due to iTunes and online media such as BlogTalk Radio. There are several Podcast tools that let you record right from your computer. You can offer podcasts directly on your website or use mass distributors like iTunes and BlogTalk Radio to reach a wider audience based on topics of interests.
Really there are no limits as to how you can repackage your stories and research. You already did the work. Now it’s time to make it work for you.
I am hard at work on an outline/synopsis sort of thingy for a new trilogy. I wish I could say it’s a true outline or synopsis, but I’m not an outliner. However, I’m not a panster either, to just start writing and write by the seat of my pants. I am a plan-ster, a person who halfway plans and then writes a while, and then plans again from the new and improved position halfway through the story.
While I’m outlining (term used loosely, as just explained), I am finding places where I am stuck. What happens next?
One word is changing things: Because.
My character argues with another BECAUSE. . .
By forcing myself to answer the BECAUSE question, I wind up going deeper into backstory, motivations and emotional depth. Why are they doing such and so? BECAUSE. . .
Backstory. Some of the because has to do with inventing backstory. This week, I found a villain that way. I knew Character V was acting up, but when I added the BECAUSE and started delving into V’s psychology and backstory, suddenly V took on a new–and much more interesting–role in the story. He became the antagonist, which I knew I needed, but I had been avoiding the work needed to figure it out. So, the BECAUSE work became a shortcut to finding out about a villain.
Motivations. For all the characters, the BECAUSE work meant I had to delve into the reasons for actions, the motivations. This deepened the story in important ways, even at this outline level. Partly, I am trying to find connections among characters and how they approach life at interesting tangents. As I worked on the BECAUSE answers, I made sure the answers weren’t clones, but held the possibility of interesting clashes.
Emotional Depth. This is saying the same thing as motivations in a different way, but it’s an important variation. Emotion is hard for me to pull into a story and planning for it up front is essential–or else my stories will be flat and revisions will be deadly. One question that helps here is, “Who hurts the most? X hurts the most BECAUSE. . .”
Fiction is about emotional conflict and how that conflict is resolved (or not). Generally, the person who hurts the most should be the main character. It’s not unusual to have to change the MC to a different character as you uncover and create the characters’ inner lives.
I am still stumbling around inside the ideas for this story. But one word is lighting a path toward actually writing a first draft: BECAUSE.
Backstory can be essential to understanding a character and his/her journey. It can deepen conflict, reveal motivation and elicit sympathy for a hero or secondary character.
Nothing can kill pacing faster than an info-dump of backstory, especially in the first half of a novel. So when and how best to include it?
Here are 5 tips on how to artfully weave backstory into a middle grade or YA novel:
Hint at your character’s backstory early on, but hold off on revealing it until the information is crucial for readers – or characters – to know.
Reveal it piecemeal. Instead of an extended flashback, pick 2 or 3 key moments you can drop in here and there in small chunks – a sentence or two at a time, rather than paragraphs. This allows your reader to play detective and piece the clues together to form the whole picture.
Have it be activated by something sensory – a sight, smell, sound, taste or feeling. These are powerful memory triggers, and can connect a present experience to a past one, making the details of the backstory feel more germane.
Put it in a moment of interiority. (This only works if you are writing in 1st or close 3rd person, of course.)
Reveal it in as few words as possible, artfully chosen. How many of those lyrical details do you really need? Let go of the writerly padding, no matter how much you love the imagery, and focus on the details that move the story forward. Young readers are less interested in backstory than they are in forward moving action.
Guest Post by Carolyn Howard-JohnsonMy husband—sweetie that he is—brought me a copy of The Smithsonian from his dermatologist's office. So thanks to Lance and Dr. Mantel, I am now a diehard fan of the magazine.One of the articles was inspired by the new movie, Man of Steel. They take up how "superhero origin stories inspire us to cope with adversity."The elements that make superheroes so
Note from M.J. - I'm moving the Backstory blog that I've had since 2006, here. On Friday's BB&H will be a place where authors share the secrets, truths, logical and illogical moments that sparked their fiction or memoirs. Today I have a special backstory - since this is a book I've read and loved!
You are a lover of words. One day, you will write a book.
That fortune, cracked free of a cookie after eating my favorite Chinese meal of chicken and broccoli (extra spicy), resonated with me. I did love words. I did want to write a book. In fact, I’d been writing children’s picture book manuscripts for over a year. I wasn’t choosing the right sort of words for children’s books, though—words like “Go, dog. Go.” I liked words that filled a mouth with multiple syllables and a mind with interesting possibilities—words like unbounded and asymmetry and cryptophasia and hallucination.
So, with the fortune cookie slip before me, I began writing a novel for adults. The year: 2002. I intended it to be a romance, because I had a friend who loved the genre. But the story wanted to grow beyond the traditional bounds of romance; there were twin sisters here with something to say—about a tragedy and music and misunderstandings—not to mention a Javanese artifact, an antique dagger called a keris, bent on having a starring role.
Two years later, after hacking 40,000 words off the manuscript and polishing the surviving sentences, I queried agents, still not 100% sure of what I’d written. Turns out, I wasn’t alone.
“The premise of your book is compelling and the writing evocative,” one agent wrote in her rejection letter, “but the tone and set-up make this novel a bit difficult to categorize.”
“The scope of your novel is too broad for a contemporary romance,” said another.
Agent Deidre Knight took the time to explain why the manuscript would be a difficult sell: While the love story drove the plot, the relationship between the sisters provided the most intense emotional moments. “My gut tells me you probably have a part of you that either wants to write women’s fic, or that ultimately *will* write women’s fic,” she said. “My gut tells me you need to write something bigger than romance.”
This? Depressing. I’d worked on the story for so long, making time for it while mothering my two children and between nonfiction jobs (I’d been a freelance health writer). I’d given up sleep. Given up television. My fortune cookie slip hadn’t predicted failure.
I tried to work on something new, but the desire to do my already rejected story justice gnawed at me. Eventually, I committed to a rewrite. I tucked the first incarnation of the tale into a box, and focused on the twins, looking for more. What hadn’t these characters already revealed to me? I cast off my developed notions about who they were, what they wanted, even whose story needed to be told. I decided to interweave narratives to better explore Maeve and Moira Leahy’s unique, magical relationship. I added new characters, left old ones to molder on the cutting-room floor. I turned the plot on its ear. I studied my craft.
Three years and several gray hairs later, I finished writing my 400-page manuscript for the second time and editing it for the 100th. There was still a love story there, along with elements from other genres—mystery, suspense, even mythical realism. But this time when I submitted it, I knew it belonged in the emotionally honest genre that is women’s fiction. Luckily for me, an important someone agreed; Elisabeth Weed became my agent, and sold my story to Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Random House, in a two-book deal.
After seven years, this word lover’s “one day” has finally arrived; I have written a book.
I credit the fortune cookie.
To learn more about Therese, please visit her website here.
A problem I often find in the plot consultations I provide is the misuse of flashbacks.
During a plot consultation, a writer outlines her historical novel to me. Before long, the story takes a u-turn into flashback. My immediate reaction is to refocus myself. I quickly scan the Plot Planner I am creating for her for what I know of the story so far ~ the time frame, the place, and the characters ~ in order to keep in perspective the time and place change.
If you've read Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple, you know I am not a fan of flashback. Mostly, I dislike the whiplash effect, but also because I have seen too many writers, especially writers just starting out, overuse and abuse flashback. It is more difficult and takes more thought and creativity to integrate the pertinent backstory seamlessly into the front-story than it is to create a flashback. Flashback is a depiction of a past, literal experience. Full integration of back-story into front-story involves more nuance and skill.
Three plot tips when it comes to flashbacks:
1) If you feel you just have to have a flashback, wait to use it in the Middle of the story. By then, the reader has had time to ground themselves in the front-story and is better able to transition back and forth in time
2) A flashback is portrayed moment-by-moment in scene. Consider instead using a memory (summary)
3) If flashbacks are integral to the overall plot and structure, do like Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler's Wife, make the story line non-linear and create the very structure of your story based on time jumps.
Most readers skip them entirely. But I went to my bookshelf and randomly picked up five award-winning YA novels, and all of them had prologues. Maybe it’s an easy way to hook the reader into the story or set the tone of the novel, but to me, a prologue should be hacked out of every manuscript like the dearest darling ever written. Why? Because I haven’t read many (or any) novels where the prologue intrinsically added to the overall story.
In most novels, the prologue is nothing more than a blah blah blah of backstory. As a reader, I like the backstory woven into the action. I want to speculate about the story in an interactive way, and the prologue tips the writer’s hand.
I’m going to pick on the most amazing of books as a concrete example to my point.
Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a brilliant book on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin. I loved the book, but I hated the prologue. Let’s take a look for a minute:
Zusak’s prologue is titled Death and Chocolate. An unknown narrator tells us we are all about to die and introduces himself.
I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.
Okay, so the narrator doesn’t introduce himself per se, but we get the idea. Then the narrator introduces us to the story and gives the reader some bullet points to consider:
Some fanatical Germans
A Jewish fish fighter
And quite a lot of thievery
One of the points of the prologue seems to be sure that the reader understands the concept of Death as narrator, but the writing in this book is so beautiful and so perfect, Zusak doesn’t need to make an announcement to readers. We get it. A few pages into chapter one, readers understand that the narrator is some kind of ethereal and omniscient being. We may not know who or what he is, but that adds to the mystery. With a carefully placed detail in chapter one, Death’s presence could be perfectly clear.
Zusak also uses the prologue to introduce the motif of color in the novel. It’s an important part of the book’s theme and is again wonderfully written. But the explanation of color could have easily been weaved into the main story.
As for the list of items to consider in the story, just let me read the prose. I don’t need a list or an announcement of characters. I just want to read.
So Zusak has a stunning book that’s beautiful and literary and heartbreaking and uplifting, but the prologue doesn’t add much to the power of the manuscript, so why have it? The writer’s mantra has always been that every part of a book must serve the story. Does the prologue ever serve
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K. M. Weiland, author of Behold the Dawn and A Man Called Outlaw, does a great job of keeping the reader turning pages. Her latest video post on How to Tell If Your Backstory Is Boring uses The Three Musketeers to illustrate how to incorporate backstory into your novel seemlessly. The Three Musketeers happens to be one of my favorite books, and Dumas does backstory beautifully, so I think it is a brilliant example.
View the video at: http://wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-to-tell-if-your-backstory-is-boring.html
I like to think of the process of cutting backstory as maintaining urgency. If my backstory interferes with the reader's need to know what happens next, I have to cut it. And I know and angst about every single spot in my work where I have to incorporate backstory and can't do so in the midst of conflict. Seeing the video this morning inspired me to go back and revisit a couple of scenes. My thought for the day: backstory creeps on sneaky feet.
We've talked all this week about the challenges of writing backstory in summary. Specific details about the past events of a novel may need to be given to the reader, but less is more. Don't tell too much, and be selective and succinct when choosing the details to reveal. But what happens when you need to show the reader a scene? Chances are you will consider writing a flashback.
Technically, a flashback is a shift in the narrative that temporary stops the forward motion of the story. The trick is, of course, to make sure that that temporary stop informs your narrative, rather than distracting from it.
Unlike prologues, I don’t mind flashbacks. In fact, they can deepen the reader’s understanding of a story by showing character emotions and plot twists. But again, less is more. If done too much, a flashback can stop the forward movement of the narrative arc. If done without specific clarity, a flashback and confuse readers, especially reluctant readers.
So, here’s a tip sheet for writing flashback:
Use verb tense as a way of showing the change in time. If you novel is written in present tense, your flashback should be written in past tense. If the main body of your story is told in past tense, then begin your flashback in past perfect, but transition to simple past tense within two or three sentences.
Make sure the reader clearly is grounded in the time and place of your flashback. Give them a sentence or two with information about where and when, but as with summary backstory, don’t give too much. After the flashback is over, again ground readers in the present with details of time and place.
Does your flashback have some kind of trigger that makes the flashback work for the reader at precisely that moment. Maybe it follows a strong action scene, or maybe it follows a reversal in the story. Either way, think about the purpose of the flashback. Does it reveal character? Does it give the reader important information they must know? Does it somehow inform the present? And does it come at a point in the plot so that it is the natural consequence of a plot point or character action?
Unless you are doing a time travel novel, the same rule applies here for both summary and scene. When in doubt, see if you can get the same information to the reader without using the flashback. If you can, skip the flashback and stay with the story.
Finally, don’t start a story with a flashback. It’s like using a prologue, and you know how I feel about that.
Next week on the tollbooth, Kelly will be here. Enjoy the weekend. Anon. HH
Poem. She points out that in her story, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, she uses an epic poem: everyone knows the poem, quotes from it at times, or even perform parts of it.
Newspaper clippings. Levine also points to The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which uses newspaper clippings to introduce backstory.
Dialogue in a counseling session. Of course, a character could spill the beans during a session with a counselor.
Sometimes, I’ve heard the opinion, though, that these “techniques” are cheats of sorts, ways to work in material that doesn’t really belong. A story should start in one place and pretty much progress linearly. Using backstory is like this picture of tattoos on a woman’s back: for her, there’s no easy way to SEE these tattoos (mirrors, photo, description), it’s unnatural for her to visualize them.
A bold opinion, that backstory is a cheat — there are certainly shades of this.
Do you think backstory techniques like this are effective, or do they feel like cheats? When are they effective? Do you like prologues as a way to introduce backstory? What’s your favorite way to deal with backstory?
Watch your delivery of backstory ~ the story of what, in the past, made the character who they are today (in story time).
Writers want to cram everything right up front.
"I know all their history, why would I want to withhold it from the reader?" "I wrote it that way." "It's the good part."
Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every little detail about a character's past, be it for a child or an adult. So, of course, writers want to tell everything right away. Perhaps, in the process, even show off a bit how clever they are. Until, one understands how curiosity works.
Not telling everything makes the reader curious. Curiosity draws the reader deeper into the story world. The reader wants to fill in the "who," "what," "how" (the "where" and "when" have already been clearly established right up front to ground the reader). They keep reading. This is good.
Tell the reader only what they need to know to inform that particular scene. This is especially true in the Beginning (1/4 mark). During the first quarter of the project, the character can have a memory. But, if you feel you just must inject a full-blown flashback, where you take the reader back in time in scene, wait until the Middle.
(PLOT TIP: If you're absolutely sure you absolutely have to include the flashback, try using one when you're bogged down in the middle of the middle.)
Just about every story has some element of back story that provides critical detail that the reader needs in order to make sense of what is going on. Unfortunately, back story not only tends to be boring, but it can literally pull the reader out of the story and cause them to lose interest if not handled correctly. Imagine a fast paced chase scene packed with action and intensity that gets interrupted by a narrator popping onto to the scene, giving a monologue that explains why the results of the chase scene are so crucial to the story. All the action is suddenly brought to a halt. The intensity is deflated. And you just lost your reader.
Some beginning authors make the common mistake of trying to put all their back story at the beginning of the book, thinking that the story can’t begin unless the reader already knows everything that has happened before. That’s a big mistake, unless you want to lose the reader’s interest in the first few pages. Nor does it work to just drop a big chunk of back story in later chapters either.
One overused way of handling back story, is to leave it in big chunks by including it in a flashback or dream sequence. While this can work, it often has the effect of still pulling the reader out the present action of the story. I’m not saying, you shouldn’t approach back story in this manner, it’s just not always the best method and has become a bit cliché.
Back story has to be handled with care. It’s usually best if sprinkled and woven into the story in a way that it hardly goes noticed by the reader. One way to do this is to break it down into small pieces that can be injected a piece at a time throughout the course of the story; maybe a quick comment in a dialogue, a tiny memory that a character recalls, a headline on a newspaper (not the entire newspaper article), and as needed, short bits over time from the narrator can be effective if done in an unobtrusive manner.
The point is, be careful about how you handle back story. Pay attention to what it does to the flow and interest level of your story. Find ways to use it to enhance your story, rather than drag it down.
What have been some effective ways that you’ve learned to handle back story?
Ahh, the elusive backstory. We spend countless hours filling in the holes in our characters lives so that they become multi-dimensional, and then we go to write the book and are told not to put that information in. It's true though - how do you like reading info dumps?
So how do you know when it's time to put the info in? And how do you know how far to go?
I'd say the answer is deceptively simple. Put in only the information necessary in order to fully appreciate the story you are telling. And do it when the information is needed in order to go any further.
If you withhold the backstory until the last moment, you are creating tension. But if you withhold it to the point where things are unclear and frustrating for the reader, instead of an intriguing mystery, you've withheld too much for too long.
Example time! We must go with Harry Potter for this one. (I will focus on one part in particular, but the wonderful blogger SP Sipal had a fantastic post on JKR and how she handled the backstory of this portion of HP if you want to read more on this)
In the beginning of book one we learn that Hagrid has borrowed the flying motorcycle from young Sirius Black. We need this info to understand how it is that Hagrid arrives as he does on Privet Drive with baby Harry. But JKR doesn't fill us in with all the details of who Sirius is, or why he would have been at the crime scene. And in fact, we don't give it a second thought, do we? We are far too concerned with the enchanting trio of Dumbledore, Hagrid, and McGonagall, who Harry Potter is, why he is special, and what on earth it has to do with these horrible Dursleys.
But come the third book we meet Sirius again. And throughout the book, at the right moments, JKR reveals the story to Harry, and vicariously, to us. Throughout the series, we learn enough to be satisfied, and yet, just like Harry, don't have all the important information until the end. In fact, as much as we learn, we never know everything JKR does. And that magical balance is precisely what we have to aim for in our own work. photo credit
A writer hears it from me when we do a plot consultation -- the mother needs to die at the 1/4 mark / the end of the beginning. Flash forward several years (I mean several, like four or five or six), she hears it again from her critique group. Then she starts reading The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master and unravels that old plot planner I created years before and affixes it to her wall. There it is again, at the one quarter mark -- the mother must die.
In real life she had not been there when her own mother died. The writer has carried guilt and remorse in her heart ever since. Suddenly she gets it. Why she never killed the mother in the story. She believes she is, on some level in real life, already responsible for the dastardly deed.
For the good of the story and for the good of her life, she needed to revise her belief system. She needed to transform.
The writer has the tendency to catastrofize (imagine final events of dramatic action around her in real life as tragedies) about life in general, OCD or posttraumatic stress if you will, from all of her imaginings and family stress. After reading the book, rather than beat herself up for the time she's lost, she seems a bit dazed and happily confused.
Of course she also recently started taking mood enhancing prescription drugs but as I was saying...
What was I saying?
Oh... I remember this old alcoholic who used to always say during our consultations, no psychology. It was over the telephone but I always imagined him pointing his finger at me as he spit out the words.
But how can you not? Writing, especially when you lose your way is so deeply wrapped up in our own personal lives.
And, anyway, is it psychology really? I see it more through the Universal Story.
Okay. My dream. I'm putting it out there.
I see people reading to the very end of The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. Yes, I see you a better writer because of all the plot and writerly stuff in the book. I also see the Universal Story making you more at peace and able to do that which is necessary for both the good of the story and also for yourself.
Unless, possibly, they are Science Fiction, our novels don't happen in a time void. Each of the characters has a past that colors his or her view of what is happening and what will happen. The past also affects how these characters react to each other. So no matter how active the present story may be, there are going to be times when we have to fill the reader in on something that happened before the events started. We also need to cue them to where we are physically because, again, stories don't happen in a void. HOW we cue the reader, however, matters. Unless we do it well, we risk stopping the forward momentum of the story.
Fortunately, there are many different techniques for getting cues to the reader without interrupting story flow. Think of them as different brushes in an artist's toolbox. Which one we choose will depend on the type of scene we are painting and the energy we want to invoke in the brushstrokes.
I love how Les Edgerton describes passive description in HOOKED, his excellent book on writing craft. He talks about the "writers of yore" who took up paragraph after paragraph after long paragraph describing "skittering waves, rolling toward the breast-shaped hummocks of the sun-kissed beach." Today, even a sentence or two of that kind of description makes a reader skim. Frankly, today, a long paragraph of any kind of description, whether it's describing a setting, a situation, a character, or even a character's thoughts or emotions, puts the reader at risk of developing a roving eye. Bad writer. No cookie.
Think of this in terms of picture composition. Imagine that you are looking at a painting. A Rembrandt. There's the obligatory dark background, the customary light shining on an interesting, perfectly-rendered face, the jaw-dropping precision of the lace or fabric detail. In Rembrandt's painting, all of this is balanced. There is just enough dark background, just enough clothing, to set off the money shot, the face that is the artist's true objective.
These days, I think we writers have to look at our scenes more in the way that an artists studies a canvas. We need to have a good balance of dialogue, action, description, and introspection. Our target audience and the type of story will dictate how much of each will be successful, and the placement in the scene and within the book overall will also change the balance.
Slivers of Detail
As a rule, video games, television, blockbuster films packed with special effects, and just the general speed of life these days means that long passages of description of any kind aren't going to work. So how do you get in your description and backstory? In slivers sandwiched between action and dialogue.
Here are a few examples from randomly opened pages of recent books:
"We have to find my sister," I finally say, the thought of her kick-starting my mind away from the horror of what's going on, giving me a goal--something to focus on so that I'm not pulled under in the tide of panic.
"How?" Catcher stands facing me. He looks as helpless as I feel.
"I don't know." I start jogging across the roof, dodging around old barren gardens thick with dead weeds. I vault a low wall onto the next building and thread my way toward the bridge at the end of the block.
"Where are you going?" Catcher shouts, following me across the spindly bridge, the boards under my feet almost rotten.
"Home," I call over my shoulder as I race south. This corner of the City was practically abandoned even before the horde hit, and most everyone who tried to scrape out an existence here already left after the Rebellion, when it became pointless to pay such high rents to live in a city that no longer promised safety and order.
Behind the front story of each character is a unique world made up of all her past experiences. Every well-rounded and fully-developed character has a backstory.
Some characters’ backstories are rather banal, like everyone else’s background, past, history. However, the character herself always must be unique or possess a bit of mystery of individuality.
A character’s backstory is everything that happens to a character before the actual story begins. Often something happens to a character before the actual story begins that causes a backstory wound. A backstory wound happens at any age and at any point the protagonist is diminished.
Who She Was Before A character’s backstory determines how she starts out before becoming who she is today in current story time. The character’s backstory shapes her beliefs and expectations of life and her life direction.
In purely action-driven stories, the protagonist is often depicted as singular as if birthed in isolation for the higher good. In character-driven stories and virtually all women’s fiction, the protagonist is emotionally affected by her past and the people who raised her.
Most of a story takes place in action as the protagonist engages with the outside world. The deeper impact of this action and what happens is registered inside the protagonist, either in conflict with or in peace with the past.
Stories have the potential to change the reader. That potential is gained when the emotional truth that comes only through the character is shared. This is in contrast to high-action violence without showing the emotional affects of violence on the true human experience.
For an audience to connect to a story on an emotional level, they have to connect to the character. Rather than a cardboard action figure enacting the action, more movies today offer three-dimensional characters with flaws and all, and backstories.
To familiarize yourself with the Universal Story and the basic plot terms in the above blog post:
Rebecca Talley recently offered helpful advice on creating backstory for your characters in a pair of posts at ldspublisher's blog. (See part 1 and part 2.) While character questionnaires might be a good place to start, Rebecca encouraged us to dig deeper.
She suggested we consider:
Narratives about major events in your character's life.
Interviews with your character.
Lists of events that affected your characters.
A web or mind-map connecting your character with events, people, feelings, etc.
A collage of representative images with notes about their significance to your character.
As I thought about her suggestions, I had an epiphany: backstory is story.
Think about how you understand yourself. When you're getting acquainted with someone (and they with you), do you give them a resume that lists your accomplishments? Resumes may be useful in a job interview but that's not how we interact with people and, more importantly, that's not how we think about ourselves. Once we get past the small talk, we start trading stories about ourselves.
What stories do your characters tell about themselves when they meet people?
How do they tell those stories?
What stories do your characters choose not to tell about themselves when they meet people?
Are there situations in which they would tell the stories they usually avoid?
What stories do your characters tell themselves about themselves?
Action reveals character. The stories they choose to tell and the way in which they tell them speaks volumes. If you haven't nailed the voice, ask your character to introduce themselves to you. More generally, don't ask how your character would react, ask how they did react.
"When do you show backstory and which character do you use to do it most effectively?" - Vicki
First off some of you may be wondering why the heck backstory is so evil. It's deceptive really. Backstory can be fascinating and very important to the story. The problem is THE story that you are telling has to be the primary story. The more active and gripping that story is, the better! So when you get sucked into flashbacks and backstory to set up current situations, you are not actively involved in the story. In addition, you can fall into the trap of "telling" vs. "Showing". It's tough to show backstory.
SO, how do we do it? And who do we do it through? Well, the who really depends on the story and the perspective you're using. Obviously the easy way out is if your MC happens to be new to the world/situation herself and we the readers find out along with her. That's not always the case, however, and if it's used as a device, we can usually tell.
You can't eliminate it all and surprise the reader with secrets about the MC because the reader will feel cheated. But you can't just throw everything out there either.
Glad I could help! LOL - JUST KIDDING! Seriously the best advice I've heard is to drip, drip, drip it in. Slow is best. A well placed comment here and there can do wonders. Go through and decide what info has to be revealed by what point in order for the reader to have what he needs. Then inject it.
Showing? Interaction with the world can show A LOT. For example, THE HUNGER GAMES. Recall how the first page mentions A. They all share the same space. and B. The comical cat? That's brilliance. It shows not only Katniss' character, but how bad the food situation is where she lives. Backstory shown without throwing it in our face.
One thing NOT to do? Please don't insert dialogue where people discuss things they should already know for the sake of the reader. That doesn't work.
Back to who. I'm not sure that matters as much as how. In fact, in the example above, I'd say it's the world itself that shows us best. But again, each story and situation is different, so that's a tough question!
What have I missed? What advice can you add? Share so we can help Vicki and each other!
Recently I was on an airplane reading an article in the New York Times when the woman in the seat next to me leaned over and asked what I was holding. I told her it was a Kindle, Amazon’s new ebook reader. I showed her how it worked, explained e-ink, walked her through my collection of titles and subscriptions, and showed how I could look up words in the built in Oxford dictionary. Her response; “That is really cool, but I prefer the feel and smell of a real book.” (more…)