I spend a lot of time thinking about my character’s motivation. If you don’t believe me, you should see some (unpublished) stories I wrote a few years back, where character origins and backstory flood the pages where plot and emotional reaction ought to be. I’ve learned much about when and how to reveal the past, and have reined myself in considerably–but apparently not enough. The other night at my critique group, I was reading Chapter One of my new book aloud and felt my cheeks warm as I realized what I was reading was straight-up backstory–in my opening pages! Ugh. Como dices, “info dump?”
Author and editor C.S. Lakin solved my problem with her post, How the Rule of Three Can Help Writers Avoid Backstory Slumps
Here are Lakin’s ideas:
Rule of Three “For every three sentences (or in some cases, paragraphs) of backstory, go back to the present scene at least briefly, to remind readers where the character is actually on stage,” she says. Don’t leave the present action to go on a long tangent. Keep the present action active, even when indulging in a flashback.
First Chapter Backstory Rule “My colleagues all agree that first chapter backstory, if used at all, needs to be short and woven in and around the present action,” she points out. I will be examining my first chapter to see what I can cut or streamline. “For every detail but the most crucial, save the backstory for after readers are committed to your character.” I think this is incredibly important. In my case, I think I was trying to build sympathy for my character for what he’s been through in the past. If I dig deeper and write with subtlety and compassion, I ought to be able to win my readers’ “commitment” without playing that victim card. Lastly, Lakin recommends we, “Use the past perfect (had) only at the beginning and the end of a backstory bit.”
Double Backstory Have you ever read a story within a story, and became confused or read it twice? A word about backstory within backstory: don’t do it. C.S. Lakin has a great approach to handling this dilemma. She calls it her Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule. Read about it in her full post.
C.S. Lakin is the author of several books (contemporary fiction, fantasy, and YA SciFi). She’s a copyeditor, a writing coach, a mom, a backpacker, and a pygmy goat expert. She teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats. If your writers’ group would like to invite her to facilitate a workshop, contact her here.
Do you have your own formula for where or when backstory should appear? What methods of revealing backstory do you use? Comment below or chat with me on Twitter at @TheRJLacko.