Friday, March 7, 2014

Dribbling Backstory

Backstory trips up new authors and still troubles seasoned ones.

Question: What is backstory?

Answer: Anything that has happened to your characters before the first page of the book.

Question: What makes it hard?

Answer: Deciding what a reader must know to understand what he’s reading and what can be left to the imagination to build tension and hold interest.

Here’s 3 truths.

1.     Backstory dumps near the beginning kills novels.

2.     Stories must be understood to be interesting.

3.     So, the author must tell as little as possible and wait as long as possibe.

Here’s a couple of guidelines given by multi-published, multi-awarded authors. They help me.

In a fiction mentoring clinic, DiAnn Mills taught us to strive for no backstory in the first fifty pages.

At Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference, Angela Hunt told us to wait until about the 75-80% finished spot in your book to give lots of backstory. By then, the reader is invested in the character and wants to know what happened to him/her in the past.

Here’s some examples. Think about which you like the best and why.

Appearing on page 12 of Texas Blue by Jodi Thomas

     Since the War Between the States, bandits from across the border had been raiding cattle off ranches in Texas. At least a hundred fifty thousand head had vanished, not counting the hundreds stolen by small-time outlaws hiding out in canyons within the state.

      By this time, the reader is well acquainted with the protagonist and his goal, motivation, and conflict.

Appearing on page 4 of Life on Hold by Beverly Stowe McClure

     My father, with Uncle Gary’s help, had built it for Rachel and me when we were younger. In addition to being firefighters, the Gibson brothers owned a construction business.

     McClure gives this piece of insight into the treehouse which figures greatly into the story, but then she goes right back into the action.

Appearing on page 4 of Second Chance by Galand Nuchols

     Leroy looked toward the wizened garden he and his mother had tried to save. Buckets of water had been carried to peas, corn, and tomatoes.

     We get this tiny bit of backstory giving a view of the setting before Nuchols goes back to action.

On page 1 of Victoria and the Ghost by Janet K. Brown

     The expression of pain on Dad’s face was familiar since the divorce.

On the same page several paragraphs down.

     Dad gave Mom’s fancy French Provincial to the Salvation Army.

On page 13 of Scorned Justice by Margaret Daley

     He had come back to his hometown of San Antonio to fill a ranger’s position in Company D because his father’s health had taken a turn for the worse six months ago Then, he’d had a heart attack, and his dad had required a lot more care than Brody checking with him every day could give him. When his dad was released from the hospital, he came to live with Brody.

     This was a full paragraph after the reader has been introduced to the heroine and then the hero with dialogue and action included.

Another solution to the problem is shown by including a prologue as in Shadow in the Past by Melanie Roberson-King.

     Nine-year-old Sarah Shand struggled to keep up with her grandmother on their way to the stone circle. (This prologue continues on for 2 ½ pages.)

     Then in chapter 2, page 8, the first touch of backstory comes with this.

     Blair had been Sarah’s first serious boyfriend. They started dating the year she turned sixteen. She was certain he would ask her to marry him when they finished school and had even picked out her wedding gown and planned her big day.

     Then, the author goes back to dialogue.

Compare the above examples that were published with this example that needs work before it can be published.

This is the beginning of a novel I wrote before editing.

     Hannah Hastings was in a mess. If only James had stayed home with his family, but he hadn’t. He had deserted them to write his book, to make his mark. Then, a drunk driver cut his life short, and left Hannah with three kids to raise, no job, and little money.

     Notice this action all happened before the story began. It’s all backstory. How would you solve this?
Which example do you like the best and why.

I found these links helpful.

My best solution is dribbling only a few words at a time through the novel. What’s you best idea?


  1. Great examples. I like the Shadow in the Past example -- mostly because now I want to read the book!

    As to your 'bad' example, consider starting with Hannah turning a creditor away at the door with the kids screaming in the background. You'd have a fine lead-in to her silently cursing the departed James.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Margaret. I'm still working on that one.& love the help. Oh, yes, do read "Shadow in the Past." It's a super book & the prologue does work for this one & works well.

  2. Very helpful information on something that's always given me fits. Thanks, Janet.

    1. Thanks, Karen. I think it's always something we deal with. Too much? Too soon? Too little?

  3. I try sprinkling in my backstory too. In the historical novel I'm working on, my main characters, Amelia and Ralph, are walking up the path from the lake to the family estate. One short paragraph describes how the estate got its name and how Amelia's Aunt Martha came to own it. Then the story goes back to the conversation between Amelia and Ralph.

    Thanks for the great links.

  4. Sounds good, Cheryl. The setting works with the backstory. Great combination

  5. Personally, Janet, I like your opening. You've drawn me into the story. I want to know more about Hannah's plight. In just one short paragraph, you've set the stage for what your character is getting into. A good sentence (fragment?) to follow that, same paragraph, is "And now this." Then tell us how her life is falling apart. You've written four sentences, and I already feel connected to your main character. I think it's pretty amazing that you can hook this reader so quickly. Great job.

    1. Thank you bunches, Jean. I'm still working on it.

  6. Janet, interesting information. I know backstory needs to be limited and introduced carefully, but I didn't know adding it later in the story is recommended.

  7. Great article, Janet. Backstory is a delicate balance, but if handled just right as you hae shown, it helps the reader understand the characters.

    1. Yeah, the backstory issue is tricky. Thanks, Beverly.