Tag Archives: writing backstory

Characterization part 4 – Doling out the Backstory #amwriting

Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. The past shapes what we know as the here and now. The past also gives history to our characters, so when they first step onto the page, they are formed in the author’s mind and ready to begin their journey.

MyWritingLife2021Every writer knows the backstory is what tells us who the characters are as people and why they’re the way they are. At the beginning of our career, it seems logical to inform the reader of that history upfront. “Before you can understand that, you need to know this.”

As we progress, we learn not to drop the history of the intended conflict in the first five pages of a novel or to waste the first three paragraphs of a short story on it.

We understand that those are the pages and paragraphs editors look at first. From those pages, acquisitions editors will decide whether or not to continue reading the submission.

For those of us planning to go the indie route, those first five pages are what the prospective buyer sees in the “look inside” option when buying an eBook. For us, the prospective reader is the acquisition editor. They will buy the book if they like what they see on those pages.

Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and negate our hooks. We know that infodumps block the doors from one scene to the next.

strange thoughts 2But knowing this and putting it into action are two different things.

So, how do our favorite authors deliver the backstory and still sell books?

First, they consider what must be accomplished in each scene and allow the backstory to inform the reader only when (and if) it’s needed to advance the plot.

Look at the first scene of your manuscript. Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

Dialogue, both spoken and internal, is the easiest way to dole out information but can be the gateway to an infodump.

  • Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. (Trust the voice of experience, please.)

Doling out the information is a double-edged sword, one all authors must learn to wield with skill. Beginnings must be active, yet those precious first lines must step onto the stage in such a way that they are original, informative, and engaging.

After we open with our best work, the passages and chapters that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening pages. If not, the reader may be disappointed and choose to not buy any more books by us.

We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined,’ a medical expression indicating the patient has died. When the story arc is imbalanced, it can flatline in two ways:

  • Not enough backstory: The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.
  • Too much backstory: The pauses become halts, long passages of random info dumps that have little to do with the action.

A good way to avoid this is to have your characters briefly discuss what is on their minds. Then they will bravely muck on to the next event, keeping the story moving at a good pace.

  • Don’t allow conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition.
  • Do set forth the necessary information.

This can be accomplished in several ways. For my novels and short stories, I tend to write in either a close third-person or first-person point of view, so my comments in this post are geared toward that style of writing.

Short moments of introspection (thinking, reminiscing, etc.) offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story. Their thoughts shed light on how they really feel, illuminating their secret fears or voicing knowledge, giving it to the reader at the moment it is needed.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022Be aware: if you are writing from an omniscient POV, this can be tricky and lead to “head-hopping,” which can lead to confusion on the reader’s part. When I change point-of-view characters, I do a hard scene or chapter break.

Letters and messages received or written can give needed information.

Conversations between witnesses and adversarial dialogues (quarrels) can shine a light on a festering past. But remember, if you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward and miss what was really important or close the book and walk away.

Those are only a few ways to briefly open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are and how the other characters see them. They offer a hint of how the characters became the way they are portrayed.

In the most gripping narratives I have read, character introspection is brief but delivers crucial information. Their internal monologues illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in the story arc, cluing the reader in on what is happening and why.

As the plot progresses, conversation and introspection are good opportunities to deliver information not previously discussed.

Consider the most popular genre: Romance novels. These things fly off the shelves. Why?

  • Because the path to love is never straightforward, and a reward awaits the reader who sticks with it.
  • Some characters will have an air of mystery about their past that isn’t fully revealed until the end.

The pacing in a Romance novel is crucial and is something all writers can learn from:

  • It speeds up (a small reward), and
  • Then it is slowed (dangling the carrot),
  • Then, it goes a little ahead (slightly larger reward),
  • But is slowed (enticement),
  • Finally, the two overcome the circumstances and things that have barred the way to their true happiness. (Gratification and endorphins abound.)

Flaubert on writing LORF07252022Romance novels average 50,000 to 70,000 words. In shorter novels, there is no room for sweeping, epic backstories. Instead, information and backstory are meted out only as needed through conversations and internal dialogue/introspection.

All obstacles to the budding romance are followed by small rewards that keep the reader involved and make them more determined to see the happy ending.

As a reader, I can say that a long-winded rant is not a reward.

This holds true in every book and story, regardless of genre: enticement, reward, enticement, reward. In all stories, complications create tension, and information is a reward.

The combination of those elements keeps the reader reading.

It’s difficult to see bloated exposition in my own work, but one trick I have found is this: word count.

I look at each conversation and assess how many words are devoted to each character’s statement and response. Then, when I come to a passage that is inching toward a monologue, I ask myself, “What can be cut that won’t affect the flow or gut the logic of this exchange? Can some of this be moved to a later conversation?”

to err is human to edit divineEven with all the effort I apply to it, my editor will find things that don’t matter. She will gently take a metaphorical axe to it, highlighting that which doesn’t advance the story or add to the intrigue.

Sometimes we write brilliantly; other times, not so much. Sorting the diamonds from the gravel is hard when it comes to doling out the backstory, but your readers will be glad you made an effort.


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Character Development #amwriting

I see characters in books as if they were real people living through the events life hands them.

When a character in a book experiences confusion, it’s an opportunity for them to learn new things. If they are frustrated, they must devise a way around that frustration, and if they are tested to the limits of their endurance, they will become stronger. Keep this in mind when you are writing. Don’t make things too easy for your beloved characters—their struggle is the story.

  1. How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  2. How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  3. How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  4. What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  5. How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

We want to write compelling characters who react to events in a realistic, natural way. We want the reader to believe it couldn’t have happened any other way, so we need to know WHO our character is on a personal level.

As we write the first draft, traits will emerge that create our characters, and this information is lodged in our mind. We know how and why they react a certain way, and so we write, write, write.

There are problems with this method. Sometimes I read work where the characters all sound and feel the same. When that is the case, it is the author speaking and not the characters. In a great book, the characters speak for themselves.

A good way to avoid that is to create a short history of each character’s life as it was before we met them in the first sentence of the story.

I do this once all the characters have been introduced.

This way, I know what their personalities are like, there is no blurring of reactions and comments. It’s crucial for me to know what will trigger reactions like anger or joy in each different person as these are things that will come into play as the events of the story unfold.

Knowing my characters makes their actions and reactions natural, and believe me, my trusty beta-readers will let me know when I have failed at that.

But there is a caveat to using this method of writing a history for your characters: Any background we write about a character’s life before the moment of the first meeting on the first page of the novel is for our eyes only. For me, this is my “meet and greet” moment, a chance to flesh them out so that when they appear, they are real in their actions and reactions.

The information you compile in this document must be kept off-scene. One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are for you, the author, and are meant to set the character as a human being in your mind.

You know the rules, and don’t want info-dumps in the finished piece. But they slip into your work in insidious ways, so ask yourself if the information you are about to dispense is relevant to the character’s immediate need.

Does that background information advance the story?

  1. Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
  2. Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
  3. Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.

I write stories about people who might have existed, and who have their own views of morality. When writing, my characters stories don’t always follow the outline I had in mind for them. They sometimes go in directions I never planned for them to go, which throws my whole story-arc into disarray until I figure out how this new development fits.

In one of my current works in progress, a rewriting of my first novel, I never intended for my protagonist and a companion to fall in love. They did though, and that took the story in a direction that was a surprise to me back in 2010 when I first wrote it—and I think it’s one of my favorite side-plots. In the rewriting process, I have been able to use that relationship to great advantage.

In each story I write, I try to get into the characters’ heads, to understand why they make the frequently terrible choices that change their lives so profoundly.

In my work, I sometimes stretch the bounds of accepted morality, not for the shock value, but because the story demands it. And when I do this, I need to make sure that each individual character is a separate entity with unique emotional responses. They must be like real people, each one an individual who does NOT react to an event the same way their companions do.

Some people naturally work well under stress, and others don’t. Growth is essential to creating great character arcs. How characters grow and change under these events is the real story. Who they were on the first page should be an unfinished version of the person they are on the last.

My greatest trouble is in keeping the backstory off the page, so by having a file where it is documented, I don’t feel compelled to dump it into my narrative.


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#amwriting: setting the scene: making use of maps and floorplans

cape_disappointmentOnce again I am mapping a novel. This one will most likely top out at 80,000 words in the first draft and settle back to about 75,000  by the third draft. Right now I am writing the high points of this story as a rough draft.

However, to do this right, I need to put together the background and research the most up to date maps.

This piece is a contemporary novel and is set in a place that really exists: the area of Cape Disappointment on the south coast of Washington State. It is a place I visited many times as a child, and have fond memories of. This also gives my hubby and me the opportunity to revisit the place to see how it has changed and to better set the scene in my mind.

As I am writing, I will, of course, avail myself of Google Earth. This is a great tool for anyone whose work is set in the real world. Urban fantasies, contemporary literary novels (which is what this particular book is) and any number of romance or mystery stories benefit from the author’s diligence in making the background scenery as realistic as is possible. Google Earth give you a recent real-time view of many places.


Just as if you were writing a fantasy, making the setting as real as possible is critical. When writing any tale set in a real city or place, the author needs to know the general lay of the land, even if the setting is rarely mentioned. Remember, every time the protagonist and his/her companions leave the house, they will be in an environment that should be known and recognizable to the reader. Your knowledge of place will be clear in your writing, with every casual mention.

the-house-at-barons-hollow-smallI have drawn the floor plan of the house where much of the action takes place, and also the cove, along with the beach. The weather will keep them indoors a great deal of the time, and while it’s a large house, these people are a volatile mix, with many secrets that emerge over the course of the novel.

The floor plan and map of the pool area is critical, as some overheard conversations must  take place in an area where the inadvertent listener can remain unseen. The beach itself is  a known quantity, and the places people can find privacy in the dunes are all available via the Google Earth satellites.

The towns they will be going to for entertainment are also well-known to Washington residents, and while the names of the restaurant or bar will be my own creation, the street address will have its roots in reality. I will do this, despite the fact these are the sorts of things that never get mentioned. This is to make it real to me.

The biggest research issue for me with this novel will be learning about extreme sports, such as storm surfing and rock climbing. I know about surfing, as an interested bystander, but I am reading articles and threads on extreme sports enthusiast sites, to get an idea of the mindset of people who do these kinds of sports. When I began searching these sites, I wanted to know what the people who surf the Northeastern Pacific during storms consider too hazardous to attempt, and what they are really looking for.


The following is a link to a YouTube video of the kind of surf my two risk-takers would love to surf, but as this story takes place during the summer, the storms will be less severe than what this little clip shows. The beach, the cliffs, and the house will be the main scenes of the action.

Storm At Long Beach, YouTube

Whether I am writing fantasy or general fiction, my goal is to have the background scenery and setting as unobtrusive as possible. I want the reader to see it in their mind, which they will if I visualize it clearly and give them just enough imagery to hang their imagination on. The reader’s ability to imagine the setting is as important as what I believe the setting to be, so I must be careful to never contradict myself, or the reader will be confused.



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Crafting the tale

Power of Words

Back-story happens as an author writes the tale. In my early works I left the back-story in, not realizing how it interfered with the flow of the story.  Now I am rewriting my first published novel, removing the info dumps and using the skills I have developed in writing my last four novels to tell the story through scenes and dialogue.

Sometimes writing is like pulling a rabbit out of my hat–Voila!!!  And there it is, the best scene I’ve ever written.  I see it fully formed in my head and it falls out of my fingers as if I were seeing it before me.

The spring thaw was heralded by the hissing of rain on the frozen fir trees.  Five men swathed in heavy cloaks rode miserable horses north, braving the eternal damp of a chill April morning, riding through snow heavy with slush, splashing through myriad puddles as the snowy landscape of the northern winter slowly melted under the assault of the spring rains.

Other times, it takes days and hundreds of failed attempts to figure out what it was I really wanted to say, what that one crucial paragraph needs to tell the reader in as few words as is possible.

The older merchant’s face darkened at the mention of the prince’s name and quickly looking over his shoulder at the other guests in the common room, he hushed his sons. “We’ll have no more mention of them at this table. If the wrong person overhears such talk we’ll all end our days in our own beds with our throats slit!”

MobyDickTonyMillionaireCoverPosterGetting the back-story into the tale without spewing pages of detail is critical.  In order for the reader to understand the action, they must understand the back-story. However, long info-dumps are no longer the fashion–the days of Herman Melville and J.R.R. Tolkien are gone: the modern reader has a leaner taste in literature.

Thus the author must find ways to insert the back-story in such a way the reader is intrigued.

I’ve lately attempted to read several tales where the authors have been humiliated in their writing groups by the snarky guru (you know the one I am talking about) to the point they now put no back-story at all into their tale. The jealous, rudely sarcastic diva has accomplished his mission–once again he’s made a more talented author afraid to write.

Back-story is critical, because action must happen for a reason. When things happen for no reason at all, the story is nothing but random, senseless actions. Without back-story we don’t care about the protagonist, no matter how handsome and witty he is.

An author once told me he put no back-story in because he wanted the reader to find out what was happening at the same time the protagonist discovered it.  I found his work to be random, and senseless, which was too bad, because just a little insight into WHY the action was happening would have made it so much more interesting.

When I read a book, I become involved with the characters if there is a sense of history, if I want to know this person. Having some knowledge of what makes this person tick intrigues me. Why did Maldred order Geoffrey murdered? A snippet here and there, artfully inserted into to the scenery and the dialogue will inform the reader in such a way they don’t realize they are being informed.

Thus the author must craft the tale.

According to Jon Sprunk at Tor.Com: “Most aspects of back-story can be inferred by the reader. For example, if your main character is a cop, most readers will understand that she knows police procedure, the laws of her jurisdiction, and how to handle a firearm. You don’t need to walk us through every day of her academy training to tell us this.” 

MR-writers-block-guy-Google ImagesA good way to dole out the back-story and still leave the reader’s imagination intact is to write in such a way the information is slipped  into the story in small chucks to spread it out.

Having characters discuss important events of the past is another effective way to get the information to the reader. However, you must use this tool wisely so as to not to fall into the trap of using dialogue to tell the story.

It’s a balancing act. This is where the craft of writing comes into play. We learn through writing and from getting proper feedback on our work.Writing is like cooking–experience will give you some idea of how much seasoning is too much.

A writing group, whether online or in your community is an excellent place to begin sharing your work and getting feedback. Don’t be afraid of criticism, because even the snarky guru has a point–he just has a bad way of displaying it. Also, don’t expect to ever write to THEIR satisfaction, because it won’t happen.  However, you can learn a great deal there if you choose to.

on writingA great book for new writers is Stephen King’s On Writing-A Memoir of the Craft. He tells us of his own life up to his well-known near-death experience, which is gripping in itself. But more importantly he tells us about the craft of writing, and how to develop the tools you will need, and the skills to use those tools.

Back-story is like perfume.  A hint is awesome, and makes you curious.

Too much overwhelms the senses and drives away the reader.

Write for yourself, but write as well as you can. And never stop growing as a writer.


Filed under Adventure, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, writer, writing