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When you're writing a novel and wanted it critiqued, I
was always told to drop backstory and add the action or
move the action up, in order to trickle some information
along the way. Why is that? And how do you do that?
A: The rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what s/he
needs to know for what is happening in the story at that
moment to make sense. Otherwise, the reader gets bogged
down in "telling."
You add in backstory by dribbles. A couple sentences here
and there. No large, long blocks. It stops the forward
momentum of the story, you see. If you dribble it in, by
the time the reader realizes the action has stopped, it's
already started again.
Think of bites. You can't eat a roast in one bite. But
you can eat a roast by eating a lot of little bites. It's
the same thing, for the same reason. So you don't choke.
Do the same with backstory. Interject it in small bites
so the reader doesn't choke.
up Question: Easier said than done. That's harder than it
sounds. Any more ideas?
I have to disagree with the "drop the backstory"
in the case of getting a critique. The approach for novel-writing
remains constant, whether for critique or publication,
and that is:
You don't start the story by telling the reader a bunch
of information that s/he doesn't need to know.
Information, backstory, is stagnant. It's telling versus
showing, and it's boring because the reader's senses, no
matter how engagingly written, are not engaged. They are
not actively participating in the story, they're reading
background that might or might not prove necessary to
know whenever the action finally starts.
Conversely, you don't drop a reader into a complex action
scene that is difficult to follow or leaves the reader at
odds on how to emotionally react to what is happening.
Now you do start the book in the middle of an ongoing
situation. One that is action oriented--be that matter
out of place, or something else of interest. But because
you are soliciting an emotional reaction from the reader,
you have to make sure that the method you're using tugs
at a universal emotion. That is, an emotional response to
what is happening that is pretty standard for most people
across the board.
If you want the reader to react to the action a specific
way, which you definitely do, then you've got to give
them reason to do that. You can't drop in a long-winded
paragraph explaining why they should. The reason is the
reader isn't yet invested in the characters. The
characters haven't yet earned their status as heroines/heroes
or villains. But by tapping a universal emotional
reaction to the event and having your hero/heroine/villain
respond universally to that event, the reader forms an
alliance with the character. (Or, in the case of the
villain, a disassociation.)
That's vital. Because backstory is telling and no reader
has the patience to be told a lot at the opening of a
novel. Considering you have 3 to 4 pages to hook the
reader (and the editor and agent so you have readers),
you have to forge that emotional connection as soon as
Now backstory is essential to novels. Characters have
rich histories and typically their motivations are seeded
in their pasts. But in the opening pages isn't the place
to go into depth on those pasts.
The best method of incorporating characters' histories
and motivations is to dribble in history/motives a little
at the time. A few sentences here and there interjected
into the action informs the reader, gives them the depth
and insight they need to maintain that connection and to
understand why the character behaves, thinks, and acts as
s/he does, but it doesn't break the forward momentum of
the story long enough to disrupt it.
Intersperse background throughout the action, carefully
selecting the details that evoke the images and feelings
you want the reader to have so that the reader reacts
emotionally and logically to the characters the way you
want them to react.
With protagonists, that means an alliance. An
understanding that is noble. Proof that your character is
doing the right thing for the right reason OR the wrong
thing for the right reason.
A protagonist's child is abducted and molested by a
pedophile. The parent protagonist hunts down and kills
Now, whether or not you agree that this person deserved
killing--with or without a trial--you can relate to what
motivated the parent to act.
Now, let's look at this from the pedophile's point of
view. We read about his stalking the child, picking her
out because that's what he was ordered to do and when he
failed to what he was ordered to do, he remembers the
beatings, the being locked in the closets. He remembers
the bruises and pains. He doesn't want to take the child.
She too will hate the closet and the bruises. But he has
Now, the villain in this case is clearly twisted and his
internal conflict is evident. We don't agree with what
he's doing. It's wrong. But we do grasp why he's doing it.
We know that he's sick and why. We know what drives the
parent and why. We also know pedophiles have a 5%
rehabilitation rate--a fact dropped in the parent's
action so we further understand the futility s/he's
feeling and the motivation for taking the action s/he
The parent murders the pedophile. S/he is arrested, put
on trial for murder. People are conflicted--some think
the man should have been killed. Others think he's sick,
he should have been put into a mental hospital or jailed.
Still others are furious the parent is being tried; s/he
was obviously pushed over the edge by what happened to
Who's right and who's wrong here?
Ah, that's the essence of conflict and it's also the seat
of how you get the backstory in without diminishing the
power of the action. Note that neither protagonist nor
villain is all right or all wrong in their own minds or
ours--except on abducting the child. Note that they
suffer their own inner conflicts that mirror or echo the
external conflict. Note that their motivations are clear
to us all. Not because they've been expressly stated in
great detail--they haven't--but because they are
universal. We all can understand how abuse can twist a
person. We all can understand how your child being
molested can affect a parent. We all understand the tug
between rehabilitation and death. All are actions that
jerk on universal emotions.
That's the way to get the backstory in without putting
the reader to sleep, and without stopping the action for
long while you're doing it.
© Copyright Vicki Hinze. All Rights
Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who
routinely shares her expertise at national writers'
conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her
latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL,
from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook
covers everything you need to know about the craft of
writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to
getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is
available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com
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