Monday, September 17, 2012

Story Problem #1: Too Much Back Story Opening Novel

In June, Angela Ackerman shared her Top 5 Mistakes I See When Critiquing and I wanted to take each of those items and talk more about them.

First on her list was:
Too Much Back Story Opening The Novel
Back story is attractive because it’s an easy way to show who the character is on a deeper level and what motivates them. Often built into the opening chapters of a novel, this pattern is definitely one worth breaking. Every time a writer brings up back story, it stops the forward momentum with a giant info dump or dip into the past. Not all back story is bad, but in those important opening chapters, you want to hook the reader and pull them deeper into the character’s current world, not their past. Show who they are by what they do NOW, not by what they did or experienced before the book began, and use hooks to hint at the past for later development.
I love back story. I love to read and write it, but these days extensive back story is the kiss of death. Especially in the first chapters.

So how do we let our readers know all about our characters without lots of back story? This is something I'm still working on, but here's an example where I think I did it right.
“You can send anything you like, as long as you’re on that tram tomorrow. Unless, I can convince you to take an aeroflyer?" His eyebrows lifted in hope.
Talia sighed, "I'll be on the tram. You know I prefer to stay close to the ground."
"I know, but you're going to have to get over that...

What do you learn about Talia here?

I think I did it right because it doesn't feel like back story. It's contained in dialogue and it's just a hint.

It's important for every author to know each character's back story so they understand what motivates their desires and actions. The hard pill to swallow is that the reader doesn't care what happened to your hero when he was five. Or that boys asked your female MC out on dares but never showed up for the actual date. None of that matters unless it has a direct impact on the plot and conflict in the current story.

Now, both things mentioned above are complete scenes in my head. I know how Landry felt as the events unfolded around him. What he looked like, how he wanted to cry but didn't, etc. I know how Talia dressed for the date that never happened and how she hid in the forest and cried so her mom wouldn't know. If I wanted I could write out the scenes in vivid details, but it would completely stop my forward motion in the story and the reader would be thinking, "What the heck?"

However, both of those events affect how Landry and Talia react to things in the current story. I'm going to share how I used these back story bits to give a reference point so the reactions make sense without going into an info dump.

Ladies first. At one point Talia is shocked to be asked out by a complete stranger. Remember she's quite the recluse in the beginning of the book. Here's her reaction.
     "I would love to take you to dinner, Miss Zaryn. Show you around Joharadin."
     Talia's mouth dropped open for the second time that day. She looked him over, wondering if she could bear to give dating another shot. He looked to be about her height, brown eyed and plain in every way except his build. His muscles barely fit in his uniform, giving him a stiff pained look around the shoulders. Her mind drifted to her school days. Ardro Gunik, tall, built, and popular. He asked her out once too. On a dare. The memory still prickled.

     "I'm sorry, I can't." She grabbed the pass, and bolted for the security gate.
Do you think this worked? What does it tell you about Talia?

In another spot, Landry asks Talia a very personal question. She replies simply.
"Guys usually…" The muscle in her jaw clenched. "Well, they kept their distance. I guess I'm not the dating type."

Those two hints into Talia's past are at least 100 pages apart. No chance of it feeling like an info dump!

Landry seems a bit unfeeling at times to those around him. But as is true for most people, he just keeps his emotions locked deep inside. There's a moment when Talia thinks him the most callous person she's ever met, but their telepathic connection enlightens her.
When did you stop caring about other people's deaths?
The image of a small boy standing on the steps of the palace came to her mind. He watched soldiers carry a man up the stairs on a stretcher. They stopped in front of him and the man on the stretcher reached out a hand as blood bubbled from his mouth. Talia descended to a familiar pain, the sense of complete loss. Then the scene was gone, as Landry quickly blocked it shielded his mind from her once more.

This section was a bit longer (sorry about the editing). I included this piece of back story because Talia needed to see a softer side of Landry. She needed to connect to who he is emotionally before she could let her walls down and learn to trust him.
When all is said and done, back story IS important, but too much is self indulgent on the author's part. It's not about us. It's only partially about our characters. It's all about the reader.

How do you decide if a certain tidbit is necessary back story or not?


  1. I really don't know the answer to that question yet as backstory is something I struggle with. I fear info dumping so much that I don't put in enough information and that confuses the reader. At the same time my MC's past is very important to her current mental state and my climax so I have to balance telling the reader about that without "stopping my forward motion."

    How do you feel flash backs pertain to back story?

    You should really consider doing your next Unicorn Bell week over this. Your examples were quite good and, I felt, informative.

    1. I think flash back are tricky too. If done right they can be the perfect way to get in a bit of back story. However, I think flashbacks are over used as an info dump tool. And more often than not, they are WAY too long. Perhaps this is the real key to back story in any form--brevity. A line, a paragraph at most here and there is really enough. Even flashbacks can be slipped in so that the reader almost misses that they went back in time.

      I don't use any flashbacks in The Magic Wakes, at least not that I can remember. But here is one from Fade Into Me:
      (127 words)
      "It's so beautiful." I let go of the cord and stepped carefully to the side for a better view.
      Carter took over the heat and we lifted higher. "I knew you would enjoy this."
      I gasped and gripped the side tighter. One moment he stood in the basket wearing his jeans and t-shirt, then everything spun until he stood at the top of a staircase. His hand was held out to me, his clothes suggestive of a renaissance fair complete with a silver circlet around his head. He was the only solid thing in a swirl of moving color.
      "What is it Ryanne?" He let go of the cord and pulled me back to the middle of the basket and reality once more. "Are you all right?"

      I think it works because Ry doesn't even realize it IS a flashback. The reader knows, but she doesn't.

      And thank you for my UB topic! I won't come up again for a few weeks, but it's good to have an idea for topic before getting to it. ;)

  2. I used to (and really still do) fall victim to tons of backstory in the opening pages. The difference is, now I *know* not to include info dumps, so before anyone else reads I just start the story where the action begins. I think it's good for the author to know all of that info from the very beginning of the first draft.

    1. Amen! If we know it during that first draft it can save a LOT of re-writing.

  3. I think your examples are great. But I just wanted to defend backstory a little in writing...particularly, epic fantasy. If you ask any non-writer (my friend James is one of them) who adores epic fantasy and reads these huge books, Charity, (I mean they are enormously thick) they will tell you that one of the things that they love is back story. And they don't like beginnings that start off in the action either. They like these slow build ups with what most young adult writers will shun away know the kind, "The sun rose over the hills and filled the misty glen with shadows but already the people of the village were hard at work in the fields." I just made that up, but that's the kind of beginnings they like. Slow and boring, that soon involve these epic fantasy themes of knights and dragons and royalty, etc.

    So it's a different animal (I think) when it comes to epic fantasy. And don't even get me started on word count. Epic Fantasy has no rules as far as that goes.

    1. THIS is why I struggle! I love those kinds of beginnings too, even with science fiction. Sometimes it's just better to get to know your world and characters before jumping off the cliff with them. Unfortuantely, I gave in a long time ago because all I wanted was to be published. I even rewrote my first chapter because I was told that although my prologue is one of the best my editor has seen in a long time, most people skip them. So sad, because my prologue is pretty darn amazing.

      Maybe when I reach Stephanie Meyer's level of fame I can slow things down to my pace. ;)


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