Friday, September 10, 2010

The Necessary Evil of Backstory

As many of you know, the Mills and Boon New Voices competition is underway and several first chapters have been posted. I've read a few - not all, as I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger - but I've read some of the entries and so have a lot of other authors for Mills and Boon.  Liz Fielding did a great post on Grammar, for instance. Grammar and punctuation are crucial. I have fairly good grammar, but believe me, when I get edits from Samhain, which are done differently from Harlequin/Mills&Boon, I get to see all my ugly punctuation and grammatical errors.  So when I read a few of the entries I was shocked at the lack of attention paid to grammar and punctuation.  Liz has a great post about it on her blog as well as a dandy resource book.

Then I popped over to my critique partner's blog and found a post on backstory.  That's really what I'm going to talk about today. Here's the link to her initial post, but I'm going to C&P (and put in italics) some parts and talk about them a bit.

Start with dialogue.
Start with action.
Keep the Back story a minimum.
The reader needs less than you think.

Yes, yes, yes.
The reader wants the story to be happening now. The writer might need to know the set up, but does the reader? Back story kills the movement of a story and deflates tension.

What Michelle is talking about here is TOO MUCH backstory.  Of course you need a little, because you need to sympathize with the characters and have some idea where they are coming from. You need some so you can put the characters in context. But it needs to be sparse.  You need the problem to be in the now, not in the past. And when you overload a first chapter with backstory, you're just dumping information. Information that you can filter in as you go - through bits of introspection, or physical beats, or the great tension and pace builder, foreshadowing. When you put too much backstory in the beginning, nothing is moving forward.
But it remains, you need to be able to put the character in context.  To sympathize with them.  Any backstory you add in needs to add to the present conflict, not overtake it.  I'm going to give some examples from recent stories of mine because I've suffered from both sides - sometimes I have TOO MUCH backstory and other times I have held on to secrets too long.  Like everything else, it's all in the execution, and all in getting the right balance.
Michelle said "Save the back story for the confession time. Allow the characters to have secrets and to have something to confess." I had a hard time with this one because in the revisions I just completed, my editor had me introduce a "secret" earlier than I had. I had, literally, saved it for confession time. I had allowed my hero to have a secret - a lovely angle to his conflict that I kept in the dark. Michelle asks: what does the reader need to know to make sense of the story? And in this case, the reader needed to know about Luke's conflict while Emily did not. Emily had to be kept in the dark, not the reader.  The reader needs to know. The reader needs to feel Luke's pain.  The reader needs to think, OMG just tell her. Just explain. She'll understand, because *I* understand.  And this is a crucial distinction! You can leave characters in the dark but reveal it to the reader! Emily can even see the signs, but it isn't until a big scene that the pieces come together.
So, I had to go back and layer in this bit of backstory earlier.  But did I put it all in the first chapter?  Nope. Over the course of the book, I hinted, I foreshadowed, I even added a few lines of introspection that stated quite clearly what was holding him back. But we're talking a line here and there, not paragraphs.
And that's what the reader needs to know. The reader needs to know the bits of backstory that develop the conflict, that deepen the conflict, and they need to get it in drips and drabs so that the tension is always increasing. I had left it too long, and by introducing it earlier, the reader now wonders when this is all going to come to a head and what the heck is Emily going to do? If you look at Her Lone Cowboy, we don't learn about how Lily's heart was broken until probably half way through.  She saves that revelation for a crucial scene with Noah. But the reader DOES know that her heart was broken. That she doesn't like weddings. And that it has something to do with a wedding in the past.  It's all trickled in over several chapters. Not that it's vague, it's not. But it's done with a light hand.  It puts the reader on her side without giving away the farm, so to speak.
But I'm also working on another story, and one of Michelle's commentors may be interested to know it is not a category romance, and category rules don't apply. But good writing rules do. And I definitely maintain what Michelle said: Backstory is not your friend. The writer might need to know the set up, but does the reader?
There was an excellent article in the latest Romance Writers Report about "Discovery" and I realized WHY I'd written the opening 3 times now.  The first time I was clinging to category romance structure.  The second time I took it too far and overkilled with backstory. This time, I'm hoping to get it right. Leave the backstory in the past and only use it to "season" the current conflict. We don't need to see it in real time. But I needed to write it.  Why? Because I needed to know. I needed to write it but the reader doesn't need to see it.  The reader will eventually put together a complete picture, but it doesn't have to all be dumped into the first chapter or two.  Because no matter what you're writing, your story starts in the NOW with the current problem, not the past problem.
Use your backstory to season. Use it to put the reader on your character's side. Use it to RAISE questions, not answer all of them at once.  And use it with a light hand. That way you keep your story moving and keep your readers turning pages.


  1. What a great article. Thanks for your insight. Love that quote about backstory NOT being your friend! Am finding the New Voices competition very interesting and enlightening, but also a great time-waster :) Reading the entries is ADDICTIVE!

  2. Hi Donna and Rachel,
    I agree on all counts of your comment Rachael, particularly the time wasting. I can't resist looking to see how my story is doing. I'm also enjoying reading others. How great so many people have entered - what a combined energy for romantic fiction! Mx

  3. While reading this post, the first thing that popped into my head was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Yes, we need to know about wizards and Hogwarts and Voldemort and what happened to Harry's parents to understand the story, but the story isn't about them. It's about a boy who's starting a journey 11 years later.

    Oddly enough, however, that story opens with a whole chapter of back story.

  4. Elizabeth: well, nothing is perfect. LOL. Exceptions to rules, etc. It is why the vast majority of stories should NOT have a prologue, and why for other stories it really works.

    As far as the HP series as a whole...I read them all, I enjoyed them all, but they were not perfect.

  5. Elizabeth because HP is a linear story, the first chapter of Philosopher's Stone is really a prologue.
    Prologues are different to back story.
    Prologues happen in real time, back story is a recounting or filling in of the info.
    The question about prologues is a whole other topic. Some times they are very necessary.
    Does this help?

  6. Thanks put it better than I did. The real time/remembering thing is important. And I think is why so many prologues are unnecessary, because they are really backstory masquerading as a prologue.

    Off the cuff I think prologues really work when the event is something that changes the entire landscape of something. For example in HP, the wizarding world - and Harry - changed forever that night, setting in motion Harry's destiny. Would I have written it that way? Not sure.

  7. Fabulous post, Donna. I think the NV contest is great for analysing what people are doing writing wise, because there are a few entries there with too much, and in such a short example (1 chapter) you can really focus in on the fact that its overdone. I write 'sparse' first draft around, I've always had to expand on the first draft, but backstory always flows in too strongly, and that I need to cut.

  8. scotialassie2:12 p.m.

    Excellent post, Donna! Very pertinent for me right now as I struggling with that very issue in my story.

  9. Thanks Donna. Appreciated your blog on backstory. Pesky stuff.

  10. Wonderful post Donna! I get a thrill knowing that the authors are out there reading the chapters too. That doesn't happen everyday! :)

  11. Donna, I think I just had a lightbulb go off. And not so much about backstory as about how the reader needs to know what's happening NOW. I know I try so hard with character's backstory that I tend to forget how that makes them act in the present. And yes, I probably add too much past to the introspection...
    Hmmm, great post!!