Using Backstory Effectively

 

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

All righty. So we have been discussing “flashbacks” and I have been working hard to pull this blanket term apart because not everything that shifts back in time is the dreaded “training wheel flashback” that make us editors break out in hives. New writers love to shift back and forth in time because they are weak at plotting and characterization and “flashbacks” often serve to prop up these weak spots.

Um, like training wheels.

Before we get into non-linear plotting, I would like to talk about backstory. Often we feel the need to include a lot of backstory right in the beginning because we just simply don’t trust that the reader will “get it.” Sometimes this will be delivered through going back in time so we need to talk about it.

 

Our goal in fiction is to hook early and hook deep. GUT HOOK. Get as close to the inciting incident as possible. Yes, backstory has its place, but we must be careful about how we deliver it. Think of garlic mashed potatoes. I LOVE them. But what happens if the garlic isn’t blended in just right? No one wants a mouthful of garlic. It is an unpleasant experience that probably discourages taking another bite.

There is nothing per se wrong with backstory in the beginning, but we live in an age where attention spans are very short. The longer we take to get to the point, the likelier it is that a reader will lose interest.

New writers particularly believe that readers need more setup than they really do. They don’t trust the reader. But not only are readers actually very clever, giving that backstory often will fizzle the very tension that turns pages.

I have made up two examples to illustrate what I am talking aboutI’m going to show not tell😉. This first selection is not necessarily “bad” writing. But I would like you to contrast it with the second sample and see the difference it makes when we learn to be “secret-keepers” and save that backstory for later.

Kristen’s Made-Up Example A:

Fifi’s mom had been abusive all her life. She remembered staring through the bars of the toddler bed, tensing at the sound of footsteps in the hall knowing, even at that young of an age, that pain would follow. For years, the whole family balanced on eggshells, waiting to sense what to say or what to do that might delay Doris’s wrath. Fifi never could figure out just how to please her mother.

When she was in third grade, she had to explain the bruises on her back from the Play-Doh cans lobbed at her that morning, the cans she forgot to pick up after Elizabeth came over to play. Then, when she was in sixth grade, there was that teacher who called CPS when Fifi showed up with a black eye. But her mom was always the charmer and was practically best friends with the social worker by the time the interview was finished. CPS did nothing and Fifi got the beating of her life as soon as the social worker was out of the drive. But that time her Mom made sure to only hit places where no one could see the marks.

Now Fifi was thirty and somehow had never escaped the pull of her Doris’s power. The power of Alzheimer’s. It figured her mother would be blessed with forgetting, when that was all Fifi had ever wanted. Just tonight, her mother had set the kitchen on fire and when Fifi tried to extinguish the flames, her mother had pummeled her. She snapped. After all this time, all this pain, she just picked up a pot and fought back and this time it had gone terribly wrong.

Example B:

Fifi pressed a scorched towel to her face to stem the bleeding. Her mother, Doris, lay facedown in a broken heap, her head an odd shape from where the pot had cracked her skull. After all the years, all the beatings it had come to this. It figured the one time Fifi stood up for herself, it would end with trying to hide Doris’s body.

***

There is nothing particularly wrong with Example A. But, I do run the risk of sounding melodramatic and the reader wonders if I have a point to all this and might lose interest before Fifi whollops mom with a pot. The first example does a lot of explaining and answers a lot of questions. We are told about the long history of abuse with all this setup and so we feel comfortable in the situation because we are grounded.

Now, Example B does something vastly different. It starts right at the trouble and poses more questions than it answers. Because of this, I compel the reader to move forward because the reader is NOT grounded.

In the second example, we wonder what the heck happened? We glean there was some kind of a fire because of the scorched towel. We also “get” there was some kind of an altercation because Fifi is bleeding. I don’t need to detail the history of abuse because a few words take care of this. After all the years, all the beatings. 

I don’t need to detail Fifi being a doormat, because it is clear this is the first time she has fought back. But notice the hidden questions. Not only do we want to know what the heck happened, we also get a sense that Fifi has never had anyone believe her because her instinct is NOT to call the police, rather it is to dispose of her mother’s body.

We are compelled to sympathize with Fifi because it is clear she is a victim and not simply a murderer. We know there is a history of suffering because of the language. Mom is referred to as Doris (not “Mom”), suggesting psychological distancing.

Backstory has its place, but often we are tempted to glom it on in the beginning to make the reader “comfortable.” Making readers comfortable is bad. Make them uncomfortable because that means they will want to turn pages.

Let’s say our story continues on. Fifi is trying to think of how to hide her mother’s body, but remember there was a kitchen fire. What if a neighbor has called 911? Fifi is pondering the rug in the living room and wondering if she can lift Dear Old Mom into the trunk of her Honda on her own, when firetrucks arrive. Now, I have a bad situation I have made worse.

Effectively, the reader is hooked.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

I can go any number of ways with this, but let’s say the firemen come in, find the body and Fifi is hauled away. It is later that I could go into maybe a more detailed description of the years of abuse. Say, in an interview with a homicide detective.

Or maybe she stuffs mom into a closet, no one is the wiser and Fifi calls a shady guy from her past to help get rid of mom. She will have some explaining to do to get Shady Guy’s help. Backstory can be relayed, but notice this is done later after the reader is vested.

Backstory as a Time-Loop

So this is our simple example. But what if I want to put Fifi into some situation that no one would have anticipated? What if the story problem is not about getting away with murdering her mother and is about something else?

What if the murder is simply what led to the actual plot problem?

For instance, Fifi is in Venezuela awaiting to hear from the American Embassy to help her get out of jail. She was caught running drugs.

This is when we can use backstory in a sort of time-loop. We start with the inciting incident to get the reader hooked and then smoothly loop around. We go back to when everything went sideways until we catch up to real-time.

If the book is really about Fifi bringing down drug lords who framed her, then we start with her in a Venezuelan prison (inciting incident) then smoothly transition back to the murder and how it began a series of events that now brings us up to real-time story and the problem of taking down the people who framed her. We have a surface problem (get out of jail and take down drug lords) as well as a story-worthy problem (learning not to be a victim).

For instance, Fifi killed mom and asked Shady Guy for help getting rid of the body and this decision led to her being framed for running cocaine. Now she is in a real pickle, but note that we needed the loop around of backstory to properly get to the real-time problem. We also do NOT go back in time until the reader is hooked with the inciting incident for the real-time plot problem. If we dump backstory too soon? The tension evaporates.

Les Edgerton uses a fabulous example to illustrate this technique and I am going to include it here because, yes, I have read this novel and it is the best example I can think of so I am stealing😀 . Les said it was okay. His book Hooked will change your life.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.37.49 PM

Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun does such a loop-around. The story begins with Tucker Case hanging upside down from a coconut tree about to be eaten by cannibals. Without so much as a space break, Moore shifts seamlessly from Tucker awaiting being made into an entree back in time with the line, “Like most missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar.”

We effortlessly go back to the bar where Tucker meets the prostitute who talks him into taking her up in a plane so she can join the Mile High Club (even though he is drunk and shouldn’t be flying). Tucker ends up crashing the plane and seriously damaging his man parts. To make matters worse, he was the pilot for a cosmetics company that has a pink plane😉 …and the owner is livid over the avalanche of disastrous PR.

Tucker not only is losing his license, he is probably going to go to jail and this leads him to taking a somewhat shady job flying medical supplies in Micronesia. This backstory is how he ended up suspended in the tree about to be eaten and it is necessary because the story is about Tucker growing up and realizing that it isn’t bad luck or karma that is making his life suck, it’s that he makes bad decisions.

But remember, we began this story with Tucker hanging in a tree about to be eaten. The inciting incident has already occurred, so readers will indulge this loop around because they want to know how Tucker gets out of the tree and what happens from there.

If the story had simply been about Tucker trying to rebuild his life after the world’s most embarrassing plane crash, we would start in the bar. But even then, if we simply start in the bar, we are not at an inciting incident—Tucker doesn’t realize he might be responsible for his own misfortunes until that defining moment in the tree.

We know he has reached this self-awareness because of the line, “Like most missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar.”

If we simply start in the bar and Tucker lacks this self-awareness, the flight, the crash, the injury, the threat of jail just becomes a string of bad event after bad event happening to this character.

Ask the Hard Questions

When you are tempted to include backstory (particularly at the beginning) just ask the hard questions.

Is it necessary to give backstory at all?

In Thelma and Louise we never get Louise’s full story. We (the audience) are left to fill in the blanks and infer Louise was likely raped in Texas.

Can I just add a small amount of backstory for set-up?

For instance, in our Fifi B example, there is a tad bit of setup that Fifi was abused by her mom.

Does this story, by nature, require a loop-around? Without the loop back in time, is the story we want to tell completely altered?

Look at Island of the Sequined Love Nun.

No matter which path we choose, backstory IS vital. Callie Khouri had to know Louise’s backstory to write Thelma & Louise but she was not required to spell it out. We (Author God) need to know our characters, but how we then spell it out depends a lot on the story we wish to write.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Is it becoming clearer how to use going back in time as a literary device? Do you see where it behooves us to be secret-keepers?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Classes COMING SOON:

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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  1. #1 by foguth on June 24, 2015 - 1:44 pm

    In example A, you lost me in the middle of the second sentence …. since no test was involved, I skipped to example B.

    In those two examples, you’ve demonstrated why I will either pass on a book during the free sneak peak, or click on buy/ Bravo!

    • #2 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 24, 2015 - 1:57 pm

      LOL. I had a tough time writing Example A because I was boring myself!😀 But glad it did the trick🙂

  2. #3 by lauriegienapp on June 24, 2015 - 1:48 pm

    I’ve already tackled infodumping, excessive commas, and POV problems — and I know that backstory, and ‘where does the story begin’ are my next issues. Thanks for an excellent post pointing out the importance of this.

  3. #4 by Jenny Allen on June 24, 2015 - 1:49 pm

    I’m so glad I found this blog when I did!
    After struggling for an embarrassingly long time with my novel’s first three chapters, things are starting to become clear. I feel like I’m ready to attack it again.🙂
    Good job with this.

  4. #5 by Chris Jones on June 24, 2015 - 1:49 pm

    That’s specific, well-executed advice. Like the best of such posts, I went into it thinking I didn’t need much help with it; I came out mentally revising everything I’ve written for months. So, you know, thanks for that.

    But, seriously, thanks.

  5. #6 by Sprinkled With Words on June 24, 2015 - 2:05 pm

    I struggle with giving away too much back story a lot! Thanks for this article, it’s great.🙂

  6. #7 by fireofnorea on June 24, 2015 - 2:14 pm

    I’ve been struggling with some of these issues in my new novel as well, but I didn’t realize it until I read this blog post! Thank you so much

  7. #8 by fireofnorea on June 24, 2015 - 2:14 pm

    Reblogged this on fireofnorea.

  8. #9 by To Be Stubbornly Courageous on June 24, 2015 - 2:22 pm

    This is awesome. Thank you!! I don’t keep secrets very well but now knowing it is vital to keeping the reader engaged, this changes everything.

  9. #10 by freethink thinkfree on June 24, 2015 - 2:26 pm

    We sometimes use backstory so as to make the character’s tale more resonate and reasonable for the sake of everybody at that stake

  10. #13 by gilmiller on June 24, 2015 - 2:29 pm

    The sad thing is, I still see published novels that start out like Example A.

  11. #14 by Faith Simone on June 24, 2015 - 2:32 pm

    Whenever I see one of your posts in my inbox I feel and odd mix of dread and anticipation. Dread because I know you’re about to take me to school and anticipations because, well, I know you’re about to take me to school! Thanks for this timely, vital info.🙂

  12. #15 by Harald on June 24, 2015 - 2:38 pm

    This is one of the best (and most succinct) Backstory posts/articles I’ve read. I immediately went back to my WIPs (series) and reviewed them all. Good job!

  13. #16 by Lilith Darville on June 24, 2015 - 2:57 pm

    Good one, Kristen. Can’t wait for your next class!

  14. #17 by Patricia Robertson on June 24, 2015 - 3:18 pm

    Once again, Kristen, I am loving your series on flashbacks and back story. The first time you wrote about flashbacks I didn’t entirely get it. This series is really clarifying it for me. Thank you! So helpful and clear. I’m reposting on my facebook page.

  15. #18 by mcm0704 on June 24, 2015 - 3:29 pm

    This post comes at a perfect time for me as I have a client I’m editing for who has wayyyyy too much backstory in the opening of his book. I will send him part of your blog with the great before and after example. Thanks!!

  16. #19 by annerallen on June 24, 2015 - 3:59 pm

    I’m loving all your posts on flashbacks and backstory, but I like this one best because you use Chris Moore as an example! I adore all of Christopher Moore’s books, but “Love Nun” is one of my favorites.

  17. #20 by ttateschevis on June 24, 2015 - 4:10 pm

    This is coming at the right time for me, the novel I’m working on does have a few flashbacks, but I haven’t incorporated them into the manuscript yet. It something for me to think about and to make sure I do it right. Thank you, you gave me some ideas.

  18. #21 by veldabrotherton on June 24, 2015 - 4:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Velda Brotherton and commented:
    This will help all of you who talked about flashbacks and backstory being so all important. This is a good one.

  19. #22 by newfsull on June 24, 2015 - 4:40 pm

    Okay, Kristen, I have to totally disagree on this one, and yes I am an expert. As an aging old fossil of 64 I have cooked for most of my life. My wife is a wonderful cook, yet she will defer to me for those special meals.
    That being said, I defer to her for one of the most tasty meals possible. Twenty-four cloves of garlic, not one more, not one less. Four chicken tights and red potatoes. Yes, the chicken get seared, yes, there are other herbs and spices; no, the garlic NEVER gets burnt – the cover on the pan, a most arousing white wine, chilled as the legs are cooked to perfection.
    The cloves melt in your mouth like butter.

  20. #23 by Deb Trotter Writer on June 24, 2015 - 4:48 pm

    Kristen, you are amazing. I’ve taken 3 classes and read tons of books about where the inciting incident should come and how to weave in backstory. I thought I understood it – sort of. But after reading this blog post, I’ve GOT it. Thank you!
    Question: Does the same hold true for memoir?

  21. #24 by MishaBurnett on June 24, 2015 - 5:13 pm

    What really bugs me is “That Fateful Day That Would Change His Life Forever” flashbacks. You see little Tommy caught out in the field at sunset being swarmed by grasshoppers and his mother runs out to save him and falls down, hits her head, and dies, leading to Tommy growing up with a pathological fear of grasshoppers which he must overcome in the climactic scene to save to world from the giant cicada and excuse me, but flippin’ *yawn*.

    That’s not characterization, that’s a way to try to get out of the work of writing an engaging character.

  22. #25 by Tamara LeBlanc on June 24, 2015 - 5:52 pm

    Your examples, A & B were perfect. They showed exactly why backstory isn’t always necessary. They helped me see your point with perfect clarity.

    Love it!!!
    Tamara🙂

  23. #26 by guevaragem on June 24, 2015 - 9:33 pm

    In If I Stay, Gayle Forman uses a lot of flashbacks and even backstory.
    This method seemed to have worked pretty well for her (hence the reason she’s a millionaire.)

    • #27 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 25, 2015 - 8:42 am

      But backstory and flashbacks can be used. They just have to be used well and very often they are not.

  24. #28 by artdogjan on June 25, 2015 - 3:14 am

    Ideal opening line for Example B: “It figured the one time Fifi stood up for herself, it would end with trying to hide Doris’s body.”🙂

    • #29 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 25, 2015 - 8:40 am

      True! I just riffed with this example, but when I finished I was all, “Hey, maybe I should do a short story.”

  25. #30 by Shea McIntosh Ford on June 25, 2015 - 7:14 am

    Meanwhile, my hubby eats straight garlic from time to time (because it’s healthy for him). But those are the nights I sleep in another room. WOW😉

    There are a few points in my WIP where I wasn’t sure if I was using training wheel flashbacks or not. This clears it up. Thanks!😀

  26. #31 by Renee on June 25, 2015 - 8:36 am

    This is GREAT, Kristen. Very informative and the examples are stellar. Hope you eventually teach a class on backstory. Only we writers can prevent melodramatic fires that ruin our MS’s. Backstory often results in cringe-worthy melodrama, and I constantly have to hack it down or remove it completely.

  27. #32 by codystoryteller on June 25, 2015 - 11:39 am

    I think the general governing rule, to me, for backstory, is that you have to be sneaky about it. Dilute it in the story so that it is gradually available to the reader, much like a thousand apple seed’s worth of cyanide doesn’t hurt when ingested over time, but consuming it all at once would have disastrous effect.

    And, like you said, Kristen, to be sure that it is necessary. What is the function of your backstory? If you don’t know that, you probably don’t need it.

  28. #34 by Sheila on June 25, 2015 - 5:58 pm

    Can I ask a non-backstory related question? When you’re blogging, can you use memes without copyright infringement? I see you use a lot. I want to add one I’ve seen on facebook to my recent blog post, but when I googled memes and copyright, I found all kinds of scary articles about lawsuits. I figured if anyone would know, it would be you!

    • #35 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 25, 2015 - 7:49 pm

      Ehhhh, I am probably skating on thin ice. I think memes should be and are public domain. But, be careful. I make a lot of my own images and get a majority from WANA Commons and Creative Commons.

  29. #36 by Kimberly Keyes on June 25, 2015 - 8:06 pm

    Hi Kristen, so glad I popped by your blog tonight! I just took a break from my WIP, which I also happened to realize had a ton of boring backstory that had to be CUT. So there went my progress, but it seemed like the right thing to cut the stuff. Then I came cross your blog and got good positive affirmation I did the right thing! Yay! Thanks for the nice mini lesson, as well, on “inciting incidents” and when a backstory loop would work.

  30. #37 by Tarmor on June 26, 2015 - 7:02 am

    Thanks Kristen. Your flashback/backstory posts have been making me think! I’m starting to wonder if the start of my novel holds more backstory than is required. Whether or not, it won’t hurt to see if there is a more effective way I can present information the reader should know, and I’ll be keeping that in mind as I write generally.

  31. #38 by lynnkelleyauthor on June 26, 2015 - 11:27 pm

    Brilliant!

  32. #39 by Laura Irrgang on June 29, 2015 - 2:28 pm

    I love the reminder to make your readers UNCOMFORTABLE! You can’t play nice as a writer. I like writing from a place where the reader can be trusted to “Get It”. When I find myself wanting to explain things to them, I come to your blog and you snap me back to reality.

  33. #40 by Poodlepal on July 1, 2015 - 9:07 am

    In a way, I liked example A better. It was sort of flat and a little slow, but the problem with example B is that I would go, “This creep killed her mother! Eww!” It was boring, but it succeeded to get some sympathy for this mother murderess.

  34. #41 by mitziflyte on July 1, 2015 - 4:00 pm

    Reblogged this on Mitzi Flyte and commented:
    Several Barbara Vine books I’ve read recently, like The House of Stairs, do this very well.

  35. #42 by lonestarjake88 on July 2, 2015 - 7:11 am

    I agree with you. Sometimes the backstory bogs down the story. Cordell Walker once said, “No one cares about the early years. Everyone just wants to see the good guys beat up the bad guys.”

  36. #43 by M. Howalt on July 3, 2015 - 9:25 am

    I can’t believe I missed this one. Great post as always!😀 Sharing it with people I know because you explain it so well!

  37. #44 by JohnPaul on July 9, 2015 - 11:41 pm

    Love your “Author God” quip. We writers are the gods of our creations. I even have a short story in which a character gets the author to change how he dies…and is remembered.

  1. How to use backstory | Author Mia Kay
  2. Time as a Literary Device: Unpacking the Parallel Timeline | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  3. Using Backstory Effectively | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

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