How To Include Backstory Without Killing Your Novel

I’ve been writing most of my life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got it down cold. If anything, I’ve learned I have a lot to learn. For example, although my first novel may spend the rest of eternity tucked safely in the darkest corner of the deepest drawer away from anything living it might otherwise harm, I would have to say I did a much better job of delivering back story in it than I’m doing with my current WIP. Of course, that begs the question: why?

Because my first novel was conceived and drafted under the tutelage of a wonderful high school English teacher (Thank You, Ms. Patti Jo Peterson!) who understood the need to plan the entire thing out before jumping in. This one I began as a total pantser. ‘Nuff said.

So what’s the big deal? I’ve always been a pantser.

That’s true, but I’m discovering that being a pantser can really cause problems later on. After reading posts like How do you know what to cut? Tune into the rhythm of your story by Roz Morris and 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues–Great Novel Beginnings Part 2 by Kristen Lamb, I’m seeing that what I thought were awesome scenes were really just a cheap way of dumping information. Not a great way to win readers over.

Fortunately there are ways to get that important information to your reader without slowing the story down. Roni Loren suggests 5 ways to include back story in her post How to Dish Out Backstory in Digestible Bites.

  1. Dialogue: Just beware of making this tool a hammer when you really need a screwdriver. It needs to happen naturally and in a way that doesn’t make your characters sound as if they are reciting a history lesson to your reader.


  2. Flashback: Most experienced writers strongly caution against using these. From my own experience I know using flashbacks can be tantalizing, but as Kristen Lamb says, “Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.


  3. Memory: I think this one is trickier because you can easily fall into creating a flashback. Roni uses this example — “Ex.) He smiled at her, and for a moment, she was reminded of the boy he used to be, the one she used to love.  (See, that tells us they had a previous relationship and that something changed along the way.  Just enough to whet the reader’s appetite.)


  4. Thoughts: This is my favorite both in writing and reading. It’s a great way to let readers into the characters internal world and have a glimpse of what their past has made them into. Unfortunately, it’s easy to abuse this one, too. Beware of pages of italicized text. They’re probably hiding an info dump.


  5. Action: Current action in a story can detail past events. Roni uses this example — “i.e.  A news story comes on TV talking about a cold case murder that relates to your MC.


Roni’s parting suggestion is probably the best piece of advice a writer can tuck away in her toolbox: “The easiest way for me to figure out how to put in backstory is to think like a screenwriter.  They cannot tell you things in a movie, they have to show it all.  So how would I convey this information if it were a movie?

As I continue to work and re-work my WIP I know I’ll run into the need to include back story, but with all the great resources available, like Kristen Lamb’s blog Warrior Writers, Roz Morris’s Nail Your Novel, and Roni Loren’s Fiction Groupie, finding an answer on how to include that important past information in ways that don’t slow down the story won’t be so difficult.

What about you? How do you include back story without killing your novel’s pace or choking your reader?

 

This is a reprint from Virginia Ripple‘s The Road To Writing.

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