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Monday, October 15, 2012

Too Much Back Story In Your Novel?

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.

Today we're going to talk about back story, how it's important, and ways to use it to our advantage.

What is back story?
Everything that happened to your character before the book starts.

Why is it important?
Every author needs to know the character's back story in order to understand what motivates his/her desires and actions. Once we understand these things, we can write reactions that will feel natural and believable to the reader.

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?"

How can we use information like that to our advantage?
Those details about my MC's lives give depth and affect how Landry and Talia react to things in the current story. If used correctly, back story can make your characters more human, likeable, believable, and many other things that readers are looking for. It can provide an emotional connection point.

I'm going to share how I used the above back story bits in my novel without going into an info dump.

Ladies first. At one point Talia is shocked to be asked out by a complete stranger. 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.
What does this passage tell you about Talia?

Notice it's short--about 110 words total.

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! However, they give a glimpse, and then a reminder as to why it's hard for Talia to trust people and let them into her life.

On to my hero. Landry seems a bit unfeeling at times to those around him, but as is true for most people, he simply 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 reveals the truth.
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 reached out a hand as blood bubbled from his mouth. Talia descended to a familiar pain, the sense of complete loss. The scene disappeared as Landry shielded his mind from her once more.

This bit is only 80 words long. I included it 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.

Now, when I posted this on my blog last month someone asked a very important question.

What about flashbacks?
These 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 rim 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.

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.

Call for submissions!
Send in your passages of back story up to 500 words to unicornbellsubmissions @ gmail.com and we'll try to help you decide how to make it the most effect without slowing your story momentum. Please add the following to your email--
General area of the book the passage is from:
Why you feel this information is important:

Submission Passage:

I'll post them Tuesday through Wednesday so we can all comment the rest of the week.

Story bits are from my debut novel coming out February 2013.
You can learn more about Talia's story on my author website--charitybradford.com or on Goodreads.


LD Masterson said...

Sometimes I think we should all write prequels after we publish a story, containing all the great back stories we've written for ourselves to get to know our characters.

Charity Bradford said...

Yes! Or some kind of short story anthology of those "important moments" from our MC's lives.

Liz A. said...

That's the trick, to get in the info that the reader needs without distracting from the story.

mshatch said...

I love back story, too, and I'm quite willing to read a lot of it on one condition: make it interesting! But it's true that these days one must keep back story to an absolute minimum which means we have to make every word count. Looking forward to see what folks submit :)