Saturday, April 2, 2011

A to Z Challenge: Back Story

Hi all! I have a competition going to draw a map on the 15th for a blog post. The map will be hand-drawn, but I will scan it and e-mail it to the winner. If you're interested, please E-mail me at mishagericke(AT)gmail(DOT) com with MAP as the RE.

Then I just want to say hi to all my new bloggy friends. Welcome to my mind. I hope you find something of value in the chaos. ;-)

On with the post...

Back story can be both a blessing and a curse. But I believe it to be vital to any story.

I cannot even begin to conceive where my characters are coming from if I don't know at least the essence of their past. When I draw up characters without scratching around in their past, they come out flat and unnatural.

This makes sense to me, because people without pasts can't be real, can they? And that is what we need our characters to be above all. Real. Authentic.

The same goes for the world that the characters live in. If it doesn't have a history that you are aware of, how are you going to give a sense of depth to the reader? It's going to take a lot more information to make sure that the world doesn't feel like a cardboard diorama. I think this is a bit easier for people who write genres set in our world, but even those genres feel the effect of history.

There must be some reason why investigative protocols are in place. Or why there is a secret room in the house. (Debs, that one's been playing in my mind all day.) Or why the house the heroine lives in was built in the Tudor style.

Writers in genres like fantasy and sci fi have a bit more work involved here. Because we have to invent the history.

That's another important reason why back story is needed. They determine the rules. Almost every single one of them. How are these two characters going to interact, given that they have a long and dark past in common? Depends on their personality, yes, but it also depends on every interaction they had before and the outcomes of said interactions. I will go into rules a bit deeper, later in the Challenge.

So yeah... there's a lot to keep in mind when it comes to back story. But there's one more thing I want to highlight.

Never. Wait I'll say it again.

NEVER dump back story in chunks.

Readers want to go forward, not get stuck in the past. So unless the back story holds the key to understanding what is going on in the now of the story, don't put it in. And if you do, just hint enough of it for the reader to catch the drift.

Nothing quite works as well to stop the momentum as a good lengthy chapter telling the reader what happened.

Note, telling. If you are telling your reader anything, you're not doing your job. Show them by leaving clues to the past. Not the whole enchilada. 

You want to leave them feeling as if they know the character and where he/she is coming from. But they don't care about the lengthy part in the middle about the time his/her dog died. So keep it relevant.

Back story is there for the writer to know what's going on and to subtly clue the reader in about why things are as they are. Just because you know every single bit of history affecting the story, does not mean that all of it has to be laid out on the page.

If you know what's going on, you can steer the reader where you want without them having the map.

And that should be the goal when you're plugging back story in the plot.
So... how much time do you spend thinking about back story? Did you think about the history of the world you're writing in? How do you use back story?


  1. I have a hard time with back story and usually cut it unless it's essential to the plot. One time I got my MC to tell the back story to another character, and I really liked how that turned out, as the other character asked questions!

    Great blog again!

  2. Hi Misha,
    I did backstory too. Good advice.

  3. For my grown-up book I'm doing the back bit as a prologue and hoping that will work. But the book turns full circle, I love that sort of story but don't use it too often. Regards, Carole.

  4. I love your ideas. Very interesting. Greetings

  5. For me back story has been one of the hardest things to get a handle on. I want everyone to know what I know. But I'm learning, little by little.

  6. Thanks for the informative post! I've learned so much. I recently read a book where the back story was too often in the forefront of the story. I didn't realize what I disliked about the book until I read your post.

    Visiting from the A to Z challenge. Happy Saturday! :o)

  7. I have pages of handwritten notes about my characters. Filled with past, present and future plans. It won't all make it into the wip but as you say, snippets of information here and there will make them real and keep the reader interested and wanting to find out more.

  8. Excellent description of how to use back story. I like to say, weave it in here and there. No information dumps.
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

  9. sometimes i write backstory just for me and never include it, but it sure helps me get to know my characters. just a couple of days ago i sat down with one of them and asked him as many questions about his past as i could think of. some interesting things i'd never known about him came up. (that sounds terrible schizophrenic, don't you think?)

  10. Great idea for "b" day - back story. Why didn't I think of that? :)
    I couldn't have said it like you though. It's always valuable to remind ourselves of these things.
    Thank you.

  11. Excellent post on back story!

    My current project is set in a fantasy world (without magic) and there were TONS of things that were plot-relevant that I had to come up with and figure out how to drop naturally into the story along the way. History, technology (I had to invent workable technology for this world...a lot of it I could keep vague, but there were times I actually had to figure out how something would function. Especially since one of my characters is a mechanic!), and many other things. Plus, my characters' back stories played a huge, huge part of the current plot, so putting in enough hints toward that end for the first half of the book was an interesting challenge.

  12. I always think about backstory, but most of it never makes it into the story. I like to know as much I can about my characters before I begin page one, but I only include what's absolutely necessary to the story.

  13. I love your ideas about backstory. Great post!

  14. Great post! I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your A-Z entries! :)

  15. Hi!
    Wonderful "B" post. It actually all makes sense. You explained it beautifully. Have a great day!

    Just Books

  16. Great post. Back story comes up a lot in my writer's group. You have to let it out a bit at a time and know your characters and where they have been to fully flesh out your story. Great job.

  17. Back story is so important. I once had someone tell me, "most people write the back story first and then write the story so they know what's going on."

  18. Great post for B. It was quite interesting. Have a good weekend. =)

  19. Sylvia, back story can be a pain to show well, but it really adds depth if one leaves a bit of info for the reader to pick up on. :-)

    Mood, I'll head over there now to check out your views on it. :-)

    Carole, if you can pull it off well, I'll be very impressed. Not many people can. Best of luck! :-D

    And I love your photos, Leovi. :-)

    Bish, it can be difficult to know when to stop. Still, the only way to know is to keep trying until you can hit the right balance. :-)

    Larri, I'm thrilled that I helped clear something like that up for you. Thanks. :-)

    Rebecca, that's great. I keep all of my back story in my head. I really should put it all on paper, but there's just too much of it. It will take another five years just to write down the history of only the countries I'm considering in my current book. Not even the world. My head aches just thinking about it. But I suppose that I must, one day.

    Great way of putting it, Nancy. :-)

    Hahahaha Michelle, if only you knew my methods to writing... I happen to use interviews a lot. Nothing, in my opinion helps me more to get the voice just right. Or to get information on the fly. :-)

    Thanks Sue. I agree. There are certain things in writing that we have to be reminded of. That happens to be the reason why I chose Back Story as the topic. I needed some reminding. ;-)

    Laura J, I know what you mean. A lot of stuff happening in this book happened before my main characters were even born. So I have to add clues in often so that the reader doesn't get lost. :-)

    Laura M, (so weird, two consecutive Lauras) it's the same with me. To me, the secret lies in the fact that *I* know.

    Thanks Renae. :-D

    Thanks Catherine! :-D

    Thanks Sherrie. I try to keep things organised when I post. No easy task, considering the chaos where the thoughts originate. ;-)

    I agree 100% Jeanne. Thanks for stopping by! :-)

    Devin, that makes sense, but I couldn't do that. I'd never get to the stories. I usually let my mind to sort out the story without bothering it too much. When I need something, I'll go digging through my thoughts for what I need. It's amazing what my subconscious stored so far without me realizing.

    Thanks Tiger! You too. :-)

  20. This was a great post. As I read it, my mind had flash-warnings going off - NO INFO DUMP - and then you said it, you brilliant person you. :)

    I've tried different things for myself for backstory - sometimes I just end up with pages and pages of info about my characters and their relationships - stuff that's for me and gets sprinkled in as I go.

  21. I adore back story. It's so hard though, after writing it in such loving detail, to then leave it mostly out of the book! Very steep learning curve on how much to include and in what does. Great post!

  22. Great post. My first book that I lost to a virus back in 2002 was blended quite nicely. Having focused on getting the poetry book published (that's done as of April 1st) now I can go back to the novel. But the ideas that you generated and the comments above had some really good ideas about how to plug backstory in. Thanks

  23. Backstory. What a great idea for B. Thanks Mischa.


    L'Aussie Travel A - Z Challenge Posts

  24. Great post. I always think a lot about back story, but most of it ends up being cut in the end anyway.

  25. I love my character's backstories, but I'm sure my readers don't care. So, I try to limit backstory information to the extraordinary rather than the normal life. Keeps it interesting.

  26. What a great post! I (unfortunately) often find myself reading back over long, annoying scenes of back story that have absolutely no relevance to what's going on. Sometimes it's just hard to let go of something that you've written well! But I guess that's why the backspace button was invented.

  27. Yeah, Les Edgerton calls back story the "Rubber Ducky Phenomenon"...great post.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  28. I've developed a fun habit of creating backstory on the fly. It keeps me interested in my writing as I go plus I give myself the added challenge of not being allowed to change the backstory as I move forward, meaning that I have to do something to the story in the moment to make the backstory fit. This trick often forces me to move away from the obvious or cliché next step in the story.

  29. Interesting stuff. It's definitely best to know ever bit of back story in detail, after all these characters are our babies, but only share the essentials with the reader.

  30. I'm intermittently working on my first novel and yes, I do think about the history of the characters quite a lot. This has been a useful post for me, thank you!

    Duncan In Kuantan

  31. Great post! I try to weave the backstory in a bit at a time.

  32. I have a personal rule: never write more than two sentences of backstory together. If I can't get the point across in two sentences, then the action has stopped for two long, and probably it's not important. Two sentences is rather arbitrary, but it works for me.

    Thanks. Great post!

    East for Green Eyes

  33. Visiting from the A-Z Blogging Challenge. Nice to "meet" you! I'm a new follower. Have a great Sunday and a fun A-Z April :-)

  34. Excellent blog. Good luck with your goal.

  35. Great post...backstory adds so much depth but, as you say, has to be developed carefully or it squashes a story. Thanks for visiting my blog. I shall follow with interest!

  36. awesome post. I'm all about spreading backstory out all throughout the novel.April is one hectic month for us writers, but I'll be sending you some good vibes so you can finish your rewrite soon!

  37. Stopping by on the challenge. Great post. Too much backstory is one of my biggest faults. BTW: new follower here. Looking forward to reading more posts.

  38. I sometimes get lost in backstory. Particularly when I write sci fi. I get so involved in creating worlds and cultures that I forget to work on the actual story. Terrific post.

  39. I try to get it into my story in dribs and draps otherwise known as palatable doses. Just enough to clue the reader in to important stuff he needs to know. Informative and useful post, Misha.

  40. I do have a hard time with backstory, especially for places. I don't give it as much thought as I should. You make an excellent point about its importance.
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I look forward to what you'll have next!

  41. History is essential in my stories. It's the reason why things happen. But I try never to just dump all the info in at once. I weave it in and leave clues here n there.

  42. Such great suggestions. Watch out for the info dumps. Love your 'B' post! :)

  43. Alison, I'm glad I ticked all the boxes. ;-) I agree, most of the back story that I know is for my information only. As long as I can explain everything at the hand of what I know, I'm pretty sure that the reader won't feel as if I'm being unrealistic.

    Hart, it is a very steep learning curve, and getting it wrong can have a very bad effect on the story. :-)

    Joe, I hope you get it right again when you get back to your novel. :-) I'm glad if I could help.

    Thanks Denise. :-D

    Cheree, same here. I add very little in. Only where I think the reader will think: how the hell? or why?

    Kari, that's a good point. We should include the highlights, not everything. :-)

    Caitlin, it's always hard to let go of well-written scenes. But I wouldn't backspace over backstory. Just cut and paste to another document. ;-)

    Thanks Margo! :-D

    Raquel, what an interesting term! Thanks for dropping by. :-)

    Alex, I do that too, because sometimes something happens and I know that I need an explanation for it. And because I never thought of that something before, I have to figure it out. I think I created a missconception in my writing, I don't write down books and books of back story before I write. I just want to make sure that when I write something, there is in fact a sense of history to it. For that, I have to think back. ;-)

    I agree, Rosalind. In fact, I think that we are automatically drawn to find out as much as we can about our characters. :-)

    I'm glad you like it, Duncan. Good luck with your novel!

    That's a great way to do it, Laura. :-)

    Thanks Rosie! That's an interesting way of handling back story. I think my rules are a bit more lax. I do back story (and sometimes plenty of it) in such a way that it is shown subtly in the present and how it's affecting the characters... I played around with that the other day, and I must say, I will definitely do it again. I loved the effect it created.

    Hi Martha! Nice to meet you too. Thanks for the follow. :-)

    Thanks Connie! :-D

    Thanks Gems. :-D

    Thanks Nut. I love getting me some good vibes. ;-)

    Hi TC, I'd say back story is one of my biggest temptations too. I always want to explain too much, so now I'm trying to leave the right clues for the reader to come to the right conclusions. Thanks for the follow. :-D

    Melissa, that was a real danger for me too. So I let my mind work it out while I wrote my first draft. Sort of all the why's and hows. With my second draft, the book became something very different. With a huge history and culture that I almost never consciously thought up.

    Hehe JL, drips and drabs are a great way to describe back story additions. ;-)

    Amy, I'm glad if you found value in this post. I also used to struggle with it, but I've discovered that some part of my mind figures it all out while I'm exploring the world in the first draft. The history of the countries I write now come to me with scary ease. :-)

    Same here, Lynda. A lot of what happens in Doorways started hundreds of years before its start. I can't tell the entire history in Doorways, but maybe I'll write the history in separate books like Tolkien did. ;-P

    Thanks Ciara! :-D

  44. Hey Misha ~~ dropping by from the A~Z Challenge ~ nice to meet you !!



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