Backstory. That one word is often enough to send writers screaming into the streets. Or at least moaning to the freezer for another Monarch® bar. Seems like we either dump it in all at once (but if readers don’t know the hero’s story, how will they sympathize with his motives?);
we ignore it (one contest judge wrote: “I never thought I’d say this, but I need more backstory here;”)
or it comes out in “scintillating” dialogue such as: “John, you know that when my father died in that terrible hot air balloon crash just before Christmas last year, I inherited his fortune. My sister has continued to fight the will, and she accused me of falsifying the documents.”
“Yes, Marsha, I’ve watched these last three months as the trial dragged on, bringing out the worst in all your relatives. Your uncle even tampered with the brakes on your car. But the police arrested him and now he’s in jail.”
At this point, even the hardiest reader would lam the book against a wall.
So--what do we do and--when do we do it?
Award-winning author and writing instructor Leigh Michaels has answers to those questions. She shared some of them at a recent Ozarks Romance Authors’ (ORA) conference in Springfield, MO.
Knowing what and how much readers need to know--and when they need to know it--can pose difficulties. Michaels admitted she still sometimes faces those challenges.
Her suggestions for handling the issues? For one, she said use dialogue. But not in the excruciating example above. Make the exchange among characters sound natural and confined.
A writer can also break up the backstory into several small bits to weave in as the book progresses, rather than hit readers with everything at once.
That piece of advice seemed directed at me, specifically. In my first manuscript, the heroic knight’s entire history was out within the first few pages of Chapter 1. But the readers needed to know it so they could sympathize with his goal and motivations. I thought. Poor hero. He’s languishing in a special corner of my mind, and I intend to rehabilitate his story one day.
Michaels mentioned another point that might be difficult to parse. If the information “isn’t crucial,” she said, “skip it.” Excellent advice. But--crucial to whom? The reader.
My translation of her advice: Of course every drop of the lovingly constructed history of my hero and heroine is ambrosia. For me. What about the readers? What must they know to make sense of it all? To make a really good punch, the ingredients must be balanced or the result is either stomach-churning sweet or eye-squinting sour.
I’m still learning my own way of writing. It’s not like everyone else’s. When I first started with fiction, I tried to do it like others said they did. Or like I thought it should be done. Or like I did the non-fiction I’d always written. But it didn’t work that way. Since it didn’t, I was convinced that I must be a failure.
But now I’ve come to accept the way I work. I’ve found that on my first draft, I overload backstory and ‘tell’ way too often. On the next trip through, I try to eliminate what’s not necessary, save lots for later, and turn the ‘telling’ into scenes with dialogue. I’m still working on that balanced recipe. But thank goodness my purchase of Tums® is lessening.
Leigh Michaels’ advice on backstory, which was only a part of her presentation on backstory, pacing and transition, reinforced points about weaving in our characters’ history. It seems writers at most levels of their careers would benefit from her insights. I recommend sitting in on one of her workshops or dropping by her website and ‘classroom’ for more pointers. Don’t forget her classic book: ON WRITING ROMANCE.
Leigh Michaels is a multi RWA Rita nominee contemporary romance author with more than 100 books, whose latest two novels are Regencies. The third Regency will be out in September. Visit her at http://www.leighmichaels.com/. Her romance writing classes are offered through Gotham Writers’ Workshop at http://www.writingclasses.com/.