Tighten It Up Volume I: The Art of Backstory

Have you ever heard a writer described as tight?  And I don’t mean cheap, as in they won’t flip for business cards or a pedicure.  I mean tight, as in you couldn’t find a word in their manuscript that didn’t need to be there.  I love this type of writer, maybe because I’m a straight to the point kinda gal.  I love that they don’t waste an hour of my time with useless conversations about the weather or a five page description of every single item that was on the table in their dinner scene.  I love that every word they write makes me want to read the next, instead of skimming down until I find the good stuff.  This is the type of writer I strive to be, and I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to achieve it.

If you’re like me and write complex stories with multiple points of view and plot lines, writing a tight story is not only a desire but also a necessity.  Trust me, I know.  The first draft of my very first manuscript was 140,000 words (eek!  I’m almost embarrassed to say that!)  And after undergoing the painstaking task of trimming, and cutting, and hacking a little bit more, I vowed to learn how to write tight.  So I thought I’d start a little series on the various techniques and tricks I’ve learned through the years, and hope that maybe I can save at least one person the same pain I once faced.

Today’s discussion will be on backstory.


The Art of Backstory

Everybody has backstory.  It’s what shapes us into the people we are and gives us basis for the decisions we make.  In writing, backstory is necessary when developing not only our characters, but also our plots.  It defines the goals our characters set, gives believability to their motivations, and often explains their reactions to any given conflict.  In the types of stories I write, backstory is almost always what my characters need to overcome first to defeat the problems they’re facing in the present.

However, in the same way that backstory is essential to developing a healthy story, it can also be the death of it if it’s not done right.  Too much backstory can bog a reader down and slow the pace of a story.  Not enough backstory can make it hard for your readers to relate to your characters.  Here are the three things I am constantly reminding myself when introducing my characters’ backstory.


1Know where your story begins.

This can be one of the hardest things for some writers to decide when plotting their manuscript, but here’s a hint:  it’s almost never the same point that your characters’ stories begin.  Confused?

Say you’re writing a romance in which your heroine has huge trust issues she must overcome before she and the hero can live their happily ever after together.  The story of how she came to have those trust issues may have started long ago when her father left her mother for another woman, or even as soon as two months ago when she discovered her former boyfriend cheated on her.  But that’s not where the plot of your story begins.

Remember, you’re cooking up a love story.  Girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy can’t seem to make it work, girl and boy find a way to overcome it and live happily ever after.  Where does your story begin?  When girl meets boy.  Don’t start out with a bunch of explaining or background information and wait three chapters before she meets the hero.  Stick to the main ingredients and add the backstory spices for flavor.

2.  The reader doesn’t need to know everything you know up front.

In fact, I 100% believe it’s better if they don’t.  You don’t want to hide things from the reader or excessively tease them, but not spilling your character’s dirty laundry up front can aid in building the tension and add intrigue.  Make the reader want to read on and unravel these characters so they understand them.  This takes practice and a lot of critiquing, but finding the right balance is essential.

One of my fellow badgirlz recently wrote a post in which she mentioned character sheets.  This is a good place to store all the information you need to know to build your story, but that the reader doesn’t need to know to begin their journey.  Work all the tiny details out there, not in the first chapter of your manuscript.  Which leads me to my last point…

3.  Drip, don’t drop.

Have you ever been really involved in a book and then get to a four or five page section that’s nothing but an information dump?  It can be frustrating.  I usually skim through these, which is bad because there very well might be information I need sitting there.  Instead of dropping a ton of background information into a few pages – drip it in throughout the story.

Going back to our untrusting heroine… you don’t need five pages in the first chapter devoted to a detailed account of why her father left.  Maybe instead you can start to show the uneasiness she feels toward her father.  Maybe her father calls in the middle of a scene to set up a lunch but she hesitates because she doesn’t think he’ll show up.  Without telling the reader exactly what happened twenty years ago, you’ve established she doesn’t trust easily and that there is tension between her and her father.  Later on, once the story gets off the ground, you can add more detail in.


I’m sure there are a million other rules to follow in regards to backstory, but those are a few I keep tacked to my wall.  What about you?  Do you have any tricks of the trade you’ve picked up through the years on how to approach the art of backstory?  I’m always on the lookout for more ideas!

Jenna P.

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