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Make Your Readers WANT to read your backstory

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

Reading yet another author blog entry, I found this wonderful summation concerning the use of backstories. I've long cautioned that you can't simply dump all your backstory on the first page, because readers can only process so much information at a time. Just like you only have a single person speaking each paragraph, and only deal with a single concept in each sentence—because otherwise, readers will lose track of your point as they try to juggle multiple topics at once—you also shouldn't dump more backstory on readers than they can process at any given time.

However, the blogger describes the situation much better than I can (I'm now asking myself why I even tried):


Make Your Readers Beg For Backstory

by Randy Ingermanson

If you want to kill your novel, the quickest, surest way to do it is to throw in a big lump of backstory on your first page. Or in your first chapter.

Yes, sure, I've seen published novelists start off with a boatload of backstory. I've seen jugglers juggling burning torches. I've seen an archer shoot an arrow through the balloon atop his wife's head. Blindfolded.

But all of these are risky behaviors. If you want to take risks, there needs to be a payoff somewhere. If you don't know the payoff, then you have no business taking risks.

Backstory, by the way is good. If you don't know your characters' backstory -- all the stuff that happened in their lives up till the time your story started, then odds are good that your story is going to be pretty shallow.

You want to know the backstory of your novel.

The trick here is to make your reader want to know that backstory too. The real trick is to make your reader beg for it.

You don't do that by piling it on in the first chapter, before your reader cares about your characters.

How do you make your reader beg? There are several ways, but they all come down to the same thing. You write a compelling story with strong characters and sharp plot twists.

A plot twist is an unexpected change in the story direction. Your reader thought she knew your character, thought she could predict what would happen next, and was delighted to learn she was wrong. That darned character zigged when he should have zagged. Why?

Most of the time, it's because of something in his past. There's a reason. And now your reader wants to know that reason. Now she's ready for backstory.

The rules for backstory are really pretty simple:

- Just in time.

- Just enough.

Just in time means only when the reader needs it and only when the reader wants it.

Just enough means that the reader doesn't need to know everything you do. Leave the reader wanting more, not wanting less.

Remember that at least one major category of fiction is all about discovering the backstory -- the mystery. Once you've got a corpse in the picture, the whole story is about figuring out who did it, why he did it, and how he did it. That's backstory, pure and simple. But until you've got a corpse, none of that is of any interest.

You have at least six good ways to give your reader backstory, when the time is ripe. Here they are:

1) Interior monologue

2) Dialogue

3) Narrative summary

4) Flashback

5) A nonlinear timeline

6) Research

Unfortunately, the follow-up link to read the rest of the article was faulty, and I've never bothered to join Authors Community, since they promise all kinds of knowledge but deliver little. :(

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

You have at least six good ways to give your reader backstory, when the time is ripe. Here they are:

1) Interior monologue

2) Dialogue

3) Narrative summary

4) Flashback

5) A nonlinear timeline

6) Research


By 'good', I presume the author means forced and artificial :(

AJ

Replies:   REP  robberhands
REP

@awnlee jawking

I presume the author means forced and artificial


Only if you make it so.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
robberhands

@awnlee jawking

By 'good', I presume the author means forced and artificial :(

Does that mean you know a better way than the ones he listed?

Replies:   awnlee_jawking
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Sorry, I can't resist this one:

Just like you only have a single person speaking each paragraph, and only deal with a single concept in each sentence—because otherwise, readers will lose track of your point as they try to juggle multiple topics at once—you also shouldn't dump more backstory on readers than they can process at any given time.

Does that apply to fifty-three-word sentences too?

Replies:   Joe Long  Crumbly Writer
awnlee jawking

@REP

1, 3, 4, and 5 are, in my opinion, writing artifices - there's no way to fit them seamlessly into a story.

AJ

Replies:   REP  robberhands
REP
Updated:

@awnlee jawking


there's no way to fit them seamlessly into a story.


1, Interior monologue – In a situation where the narrative is expressing a character's thoughts all you have to do is let the monologue drift to the backstory you want to tell. Then do a 'Yeah, that is how this started type of statement.'

3 Dialogue – same as 1, but in a conversation between two characters and probably easier to do since you can control the two character's dialogue to support what you want to say and how it affect the current situation.

4, flashback – a flashback is nothing more than interior monologue, but happening suddenly without intentional recall. A little more challenging to do but not that big a deal.

5, nonlinear timeline – just a matter of determining how to transition between two events. It should be even easier for if the narrative/dialog is not linear along the timeline it would be similar to a flashback.

ETA: Corrected misstatement.

robberhands
Updated:

@awnlee jawking


1, 3, 4, and 5 are, in my opinion, writing artifices - there's no way to fit them seamlessly into a story.

1) Interior monologue

3) Narrative summary

4) Flashback

5) A nonlinear timeline


I'm no fan of 1) either, but I have seen some examples of authors handling it quite well. I think 3) is unavoidable if you need to convey a great amount of backstory for the story to be understandable. Flashbacks and a nonlinear timeline can be used effectively as well, occasionally. Appointing 'seamlessly' as a demand seems a bit vague to me. A longer story usually consists of chapters and paragraphs, how 'seamlessly' does it have to be?

awnlee jawking

@robberhands

In my opinion, the four I listed above are things that don't happen in real life. They're always going to appear as intrusive but I concede that, done well, they can enhance a story.

Dialogue seems the most natural to me. I wouldn't have thought of research but on reflection I've seen it used quite a bit (eg crime stories) and it's a natural and fitting thing to do.

AJ

robberhands

@awnlee jawking

In my opinion, the four I listed above are things that don't happen in real life.

Not every story deals with 'real life'. A story with a historical setting necessarily needs more background information than a story set in the present. SciFi and fantasy stories at least that much. You'd destroy your dialogues trying to convey all needed informations through them.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

1) Interior monologue
2) Dialogue
3) Narrative summary
4) Flashback
5) A nonlinear timeline
6) Research


Nice article.

#1 can seem forced to me. I'm not sure how I would use that.

#2 is great. I have a scene in my novel "Sexual Awakening" where the hero (who is seen as a villain up until then) has a conversation over lunch with his victim (and then lover). It's when she (and the reader) get to really know him and her attitude toward him changes.

#3 can turn into an info dump

#4 I used that a lot in "Sexual Awakening," maybe too much. One flashback scene shows the cop as a child in Italy finding his father murdered by the Mafia. It helps define why is is the way he is as an adult. But I have several flashbacks of the heroine when she was a child to define her character. Reading this makes me think I may have done that too soon.

#5 sounds like trouble to me. I hate movies where they keep jumping around in time. It's too easy for the reader to get lost.

#6 don't know what this is.

robberhands
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

#6 don't know what this is.

Looking over the shoulder of an archaeologist while he's on the job. Just as an example.

ETA: Maybe a detective investigating a crime scene would be a better a fit for you.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@robberhands

Looking over the shoulder of an archaeologist while he's on the job. Just as an example.


Oh. Just thought of one that may be it.

In the movie "Day After Tomorrow" Dennis Quaid is explaining climate change or maybe when Tom Hanks is giving his lecture on symbols in "The Da Vinci Code."

robberhands

@Switch Blayde

Exactly.

awnlee jawking

@robberhands

You'd destroy your dialogues trying to convey all needed informations through them.


That's a danger. Several authors sneak infodumps into dialogue. Transmitting information this way needs to be kept short and salient.

AJ

robberhands

@awnlee jawking

Transmitting information this way needs to be kept short and salient.

That's true for every method listed. That's why I use as many as possible to keep the individual passage short.

Joe Long

@Ross at Play

Does that apply to fifty-three-word sentences too?


At another blog I do some sports writing. This week I managed a 204 word, 4 paragraph, 5 sentence post.

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

Does that apply to fifty-three-word sentences too?

I've always used long sentences. If necessary, I cut them into smaller, digestible pieces during the revision and editing process. But you'll notice, even with the long compound sentence, the entire 53 words focus on a single topic, focusing on a single topic at a time.

Despite all the 'Author advice' to NEVER write anything more complex than a fifth grade sentence, I've never had a complaint about my sentences being too hard to read (though I've had a couple about certain sentences being hard to figure out). And (I assume) that's because I limit the sentences, no matter HOW complex, to a single thought at a time.

But for you, how about:

Don't write more than seven words per sentence!

richardshagrin

At SOL, the author can put information he wants the reader to know in the story description, and all those tags. Not more than 50 tags, these days.

Replies:   robberhands
robberhands

@richardshagrin

That suggestion is so bad it has to be one of those jokes to lighten the mood.

Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

Flashbacks and a nonlinear timeline can be used effectively as well, occasionally. Appointing 'seamlessly' as a demand seems a bit vague to me. A longer story usually consists of chapters and paragraphs, how 'seamlessly' does it have to be?

Basically, an entire chapter dedicated exclusively to 'back story' is overkill and is NOT 'seamless' (it leaks badly, and will drain your readers attention).

That's why I prefer dealing with a scene at a time. If you NEED backstory upfront, them keep it to a minimum, so readers are aware of it, and then, when it's required, have the character 'recall' a specific piece of their history that highlights something from the backstory.

It can be as simple as a conversation about the city's founders, or a momento creating a dramatic flashback to a specific thing a character's father told them as a child. If necessary, you can even use: "John stopped, remembering the time his father said "John, don't do that because ..."

Replies:   robberhands
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@awnlee jawking

Dialogue seems the most natural to me. I wouldn't have thought of research but on reflection I've seen it used quite a bit (eg crime stories) and it's a natural and fitting thing to do.

In my science fiction stories (sci-fi is infamous for 30,000 word backstories), research fits in nicely. Since my stories feature 'average people' being swept up by unexplained events, the characters 'gather evidence' about the phenomenon they're facing, and then use the evidence to formulate what's happening.

The advantage to that approach, is the character's research is only revealed a little at a time, each instances focusing on a single element and changing the characters approach as the plot shifts noticeably following it's revelation. However, you can apply the same to most stories, as a character discovers some tidbit about his new girlfriend's past which sheds a new light on her behavior, and causes him to see her in an entirely new light. He can then ask her and her friends about it, with each revealing a 'little more' information that helps him figure out what's really going on.

robberhands

@Crumbly Writer

Basically, an entire chapter dedicated exclusively to 'back story' is overkill and is NOT 'seamless' (it leaks badly, and will drain your readers attention).

There are countless ways to convey information, or back story if you prefer a more specific term. I dedicated an entire chapter to it, and as the term 'back story' suggests, I did it in form of a story inside the story. I think it went well.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Nice article.

#1 can seem forced to me. I'm not sure how I would use that.

#1 seems forced when you switch from 3rd to 1st. You're breaking how you tell the story, and that's jarring for a reader. That's why it's more 'natural' for stories told in 1st person (it's less of a break)

#3 can turn into an info dump

Again, the key word is 'dump'. If you reveal the information a small bit at a time, it's no longer a dump, it's merely a part of the plot which fits nicely into an unfolding scene.

#4 I used that a lot in "Sexual Awakening," maybe too much. One flashback scene shows the cop as a child in Italy finding his father murdered by the Mafia. It helps define why is is the way he is as an adult. But I have several flashbacks of the heroine when she was a child to define her character. Reading this makes me think I may have done that too soon.

That's what makes flashbacks so challenging, is know WHEN and WHERE to apply them, and if it doesn't work, switching to another technique.

#5 sounds like trouble to me. I hate movies where they keep jumping around in time. It's too easy for the reader to get lost.

It's easier to arrange if it's already a part of the story. If you have two characters in different time periods (say communicating via a magic mailbox, or more realistically, different chapters revealing what his ancestors did in earlier times), then it's easier to pull off.

The other alternative (incredibly difficult to pull off), is when you start off with a scene which throws the character into turmoil, and the story then flashes back, as he slowly begins to fit the pieces of his history which make sense of where he is at that moment, slowly building to the conclusion that forms the beginning of the book.

#6 don't know what this is.

That's where the characters do the research themselves into a mystery (think of Scoobie and Shagey in the old Scoobie-Doo cartoons). Rather than telling the entire backstory upfront, you only release the information, a bite at a time, as the characters unfold it. Each clue leads them closer to their destination, giving them a better idea of what they're facing.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Dennis Quaid is explaining climate change or maybe when Tom Hanks is giving his lecture on symbols in "The Da Vinci Code."

That's more 'foreshadowing', as it relates to something which hasn't happened yet, but the idea is the same. Instead of lecturing your readers on the history of symbolism, you instead give them snippets over the course of the story, each illustrating something new about what the characters are facing.

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

That's a danger. Several authors sneak info dumps into dialogue. Transmitting information this way needs to be kept short and salient.

I guess I do a combination myself. My characters are faced with a dilemma, revealing some sort of mystery (why is X happening when it doesn't make sense).

They seek out clues about the behavior, and each time they uncover something, they discuss it among themselves, offering various theories which are either shot down outright, but each insight causes them to focus in on the problem, changing their approach as they grow closer to the truth.

The 'narrator description' normally comes in when they discover each clue, and the narrator either explains its historical consequence, or how it relates to the character in question.

Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

There are countless ways to convey information, or back story if you prefer a more specific term. I dedicated an entire chapter to it, and as the term 'back story' suggests, I did it in form of a story inside the story. I think it went well.

Yep. Stories within stories are perfect for that, especially since it's a natural misdirection. Someone tells a story about something else, but reveals information that applies to what the characters are facing, making them recall events in their own history (or that they've researched) which allows them to just to other conclusions—none of which are anticipated by the reader—cause it's just some guy telling an unrelated story.

awnlee_jawking

@robberhands

Thinking about it, I'm not sure the author's whole argument isn't flawed.

@RandyIngermanson

Your reader thought she knew your character, thought she could predict what would happen next, and was delighted to learn she was wrong. That darned character zigged when he should have zagged. Why?


Hitting your readers with the character equivalent of a deus ex machina is probably a good way to lose a number of them, especially when they've built up a rapport with the character. I guess there are genres in which outright surprises are a good thing, but in mainstream fiction there should be foreshadowing.

There's a quote that I can't quite remember, possibly my Stephen King. It goes along the lines of wanting readers to be surprised, but feeling they should have seen it coming.

AJ

robberhands

@awnlee_jawking

Hitting your readers with the character equivalent of a deus ex machina is probably a good way to lose a number of them, especially when they've built up a rapport with the character.

I only partially agree and wouldn't compare it to a 'deus ex machina', unless the reason for the unpredictable behavior would deserve the term. But I agree that generally characters should become familiar to the reader and too many unpredictable actions would prevent that. OTAH, a too predictable character will become boring.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

Despite all the 'Author advice' to NEVER write anything more complex than a fifth grade sentence, I've never had a complaint about my sentences being too hard to read (though I've had a couple about certain sentences being hard to figure out).


Maybe that's why they're telling you to put commas where commas aren't needed.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

#5 sounds like trouble to me. I hate movies where they keep jumping around in time. It's too easy for the reader to get lost.
It's easier to arrange if it's already a part of the story.


I don't know if "The Imitation Game" is a novel or, if it is if they do it the same way as the movie, but in the movie they kept jumping back and forth among three time periods: 1) when he was a child in school, 2) when the policeman was interrogating him, and 3) when he was working on building his computer. And the very end jumps ahead in time after the interrogation timeframe.

Loved the movie, but that was annoying.

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@awnlee_jawking


Your reader thought she knew your character, thought she could predict what would happen next, and was delighted to learn she was wrong. That darned character zigged when he should have zagged. Why?

Hitting your readers with the character equivalent of a deus ex machina is probably a good way to lose a number of them, especially when they've built up a rapport with the character.


Not necessarily. My hero in "Sexual Awakening" starts off as a bad guy. When the novel was rejected, the romance publisher's editor said she hated the hero. Of course she hated him in the beginning. He was blackmailing the pastor's wife, forcing her to have sex. You were supposed to hate him.

But while he was forcing her, there were inklings of him not wanting to hurt her, but his need for revenge overshadowed that and he couldn't stop. Maybe that was foreshadowing, but he still seemed like a bad guy.

And then there was the lunch scene I mentioned previously when he explains his past to the woman he was blackmailing. Both the woman and the reader begin to see him in a different light. The story zagged when the reader was expecting a zig.

What's wrong with that? I love twists in stories. I love surprises.

ETA: By providing backstory during that lunch conversation (which was well into the novel), the woman learned about part of his past and assumed he was treating her the way he was because of what he relayed to her. But he hadn't told her the main part of his past that was driving his revenge. That wasn't revealed until the very end of the novel (which was a major zag).

Replies:   Joe Long
Joe Long

@Switch Blayde

The story zagged when the reader was expecting a zig.

What's wrong with that? I love twists in stories. I love surprises.


Sounds fine. It's also showing the growth in a character.

At the beginning of my book, the first person narrator describes girl's physical attributes and the effects it has on him. It's all about him. They are something to look at. Even when he looses his virginity, he compares her to his hand. On the other hand, when he meets the girl he spends ever after with, there's no physical description. In fact, she's just average looking, maybe a few extra pounds. He learns to focus on relationships and caring about others first.

Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

Hitting your readers with the character equivalent of a deus ex machina is probably a good way to lose a number of them, especially when they've built up a rapport with the character.

I only partially agree and wouldn't compare it to a 'deus ex machina', unless the reason for the unpredictable behavior would deserve the term. But I agree that generally characters should become familiar to the reader and too many unpredictable actions would prevent that. OTAH, a too predictable character will become boring.

This doesn't mean you change the character entirely, just that you reveal new aspects of them, so readers can better understand them, their motives and how they respond to certain things, midway through the story.

Just as we, as authors, love when our characters take over the story and begin directing the action, readers too appreciate this, as the character takes them in unexpected directions. But 'unexpected' hardly means 'unbelievable', 'unwarranted' or 'just plain stupid'.

Don't go putting words into the blog author's text.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Maybe that's why they're telling you to put commas where commas aren't needed.

Nope. That's my editors who reminding me what's 'proper English', rather than readers. Hopefully, the editors will alert me to anything that doesn't 'make sense at first glance'.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

I've always used long sentences.

I trust you realise I was teasing. It seemed ironic that an admonition to others to avoid lengthy information dumps should be dumped on them in one very long sentence. :-)

I have noticed your tendency for long sentences, and when I've inspected them they've always passed my tests for readability. They consist of logical sequences of ideas presented in easily digestible pieces. I doubt many readers even notice they have just read a very long sentence.

There are few things I've found that make long sentences acceptable, and sometimes desirable to drive home the point there is a lot of information to know about this particular idea.
- one is to get the main idea of the sentence started without an unduly long delay for introductory phrase(s),
- then start the main idea with the subject and its verb together,
- make sure to place any digressions in between your sequence of ideas, not in the middle of an idea, and
- give your readers some punctuation marks to collect their thoughts, so they know one idea has been completed but there is more to follow.

Also, when you have something suitable, I've found the length of a sentence becomes immaterial when you employ a parallel structure for a list of related ideas, but when you do that, try a little twist for the last element to alert readers that structure is about to end.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Ross at Play

I trust you realise I was teasing. It seemed ironic that an admonition to others to avoid lengthy information dumps should be dumped on them in one very long sentence. :-)

I have noticed your tendency for long sentences, and when I've inspected them they've always passed my tests for readability. They consist of logical sequences of ideas presented in easily digestible pieces. I doubt many readers even notice they have just read a very long sentence.

In my case, I've learned to take advantage of my frequent 'info dumps'. Rather then 'dumping' them in the very first chapter, I save the biggest ones for the chapters AFTER my most exciting action scenes. Not only does it allow readers to decompress, but it addresses all the unanswered questions raised by the prior conflict (what provoked it, who was responsible, who won and who lost, and what are the future implications). Again, it's more about pacing. When you begin a story, you want to pull readers in. After a cliff-hanger concludes, you need to take the time to detail what happened.

As such, my 'info dump' chapters end up as some of my most popular. Especially if you present it as a dialogue where different characters with different agendas present competing ideas.

madnige

@Crumbly Writer

I've always used long sentences.


...reminded me of this cartoon

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