Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I’m paranoid about including backstory and shudder at the idea of possibly info dumping on the reader. Because of my paranoia I don’t think I include enough history on characters and past events. It’s so tempting to explain. I so want to explain. I feel a burning need to explain. But by explaining am I doing the reader an injustice and underestimating their intelligence? Perish the thought. Perhaps some education on the matter is in order.

Backstory is the history behind any given situation. Used as a literary device it can lend depth to a story. It can also be created and used solely by the author, never to be revealed to readers. Say what?

As romance writers we need only use enough exposition to keep the story flowing. Our genre is all about emotion. It’s about creating a sense of events by showing or dramatizing and allowing the reader to experience the story along with the characters. Bits of backstory can help the reader better understand character choices and give context. It can also will kill a story dead. Revealing backstory often involves telling rather than showing and brings a halt to the action. For this reason editors and agents intensely dislike seeing backstory, or any hint thereof, on the first page. Some say they don’t want to see it in the first three chapters. Seriously?

So what do we do if we have information that needs to be revealed? Well after doing a little research it seems to me a writer can approach it in one of three ways. You can dole it out through casual references, carefully placed paragraphs, and flashbacks.

It can be communicated through the use of dialogue, direct narration, summary and recollection. You can give the information directly using dialogue or have it revealed by the narrator. Summarizing a past event can help bridge a gap between plot threads or give a sense of events without going into unneeded detail. Recollection is considered a subset of introspection, but its role in developing backstory separates it from the other thoughts of a character.

Use of the flashback. Flashbacks interrupt the chronological order of events to insert events of an earlier occurrence. It often comes the in form of memories, dreams, or stories told of the past. It needs to be short, pertinent and advance the plot. Again, there are some who think the use of flashbacks, like dreams, have no value and need not appear in romances. A skillful writer will find a way to incorporate the information another way. Good to know!

Of course, you could turn the flashback thing on its head. Take Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, which is the story of Penelope Keeling, now in her 60’s who relives her life in flashbacks and through the eyes of her children. It’s been many years since I’ve read her book but I might just pick it up again. It’s a remarkable story and a best seller.

In conclusion, following my little bit of research, I think I’m right to skimp on the backstory. So I’m going to have to rethink my idea of adding a dream flashback to the beginning of my story. The information is probably best revealed with dialogue anyway and now that I think about it, the delivery of that information using a one-on-one conversation could lead to all kinds of explosive consequences.

Have you ever incorporated a dream into a manuscript? Would you consider it? Do you struggle with using too much backstory? Afraid you’re not using enough? I know we have fantasy writers in this crowd. Do exposition, background or backstory details need to be woven into your story as part of the world building process? How do you approach backstory?


Captain Hook said...

I was told once that if you need more than 5 sentences to tell your backstory at any given point, then you're overdoing it.

As for dreams, I don't think I've ever used them, but I have heard of them done well. Just can't think of examples at the moment.

Ban said...

HA HA - backstory ! figures ... I just posted some of my MCh's history last night :D in answer, yes, backstory plays a fairly big role in my WiP as I do a lot of world-building but it has recently been brought to my attention: I shouldn't info dump or load down the first three chapters with history :( ah well, now you know why I must re-write my opening and first chapter ! I'm not too sad about this, live and learn and it's bound to make me a better writer eh ? either way, this was a post I needed to read Karyn. I think I'm gonna try your approach and reveal more by way of conversation as opposed to internal reminiscing.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, great post. And you're right about the backstory. In one of my contest entries, Charley's Saint, I hinted at the prior relationship between the H/h and the traumatic events in the heroine's life. One of the judges kept saying at those spots, 'I want to know what's going on.' She was very insistent. So, for the next contest, I added a sentence or two here and there. Wouldn't you know it - the next contest judges said I gave away the story too soon. Upon reflection, I realized they were right.

So far, my backstory is always given in dialogue or personal reflection.

I have read a friend's wip which is only a few chapters in and started about 50% flashbacks although she's now cut it back to half that. I find it very confusing to read because she jumps into the flashback without any indication of time or place.

Karyn Good said...

Hey Captain. I'd say a five sentences or a paragraph sounds reasonable. There are a couple of places in the beginning of my wip that require chopping and if I could condense the backstory to five or less sentences it would be a great start.

I'm still up in the air about dreams.

Silver James said...

Great timing, Karyn! (Says she who is chopping a novella's worth of backstory from the current renovation - lol).

Yes, to everything you said about backstory.

In the second book of my Tir Nan Og trilogy, about 1/3 of the book is "flashback". Before everyone groans, this book is prefaced on the idea of reincarnation. My heroine is psychic and when she meets the hero, she "falls" into their past and they both relive those moments. I like to think that I let them slide into the past for a scene and then return to the present to discuss it.

In SOTW (the renovation project), it's breaking my heart to take out the backstory, though I know it's necessary. I plan to rework all that information into either a novella "prequel" or a free read once SOTW is sold. Back to work... Has anyone seen my Muse? She and Sade are hiding the scissors from me.

Karyn Good said...

Hi ban. Been there, done that. I think I sliced off the first two chapters of my first draft because they were crammed full of lovely, unnecessary backstory. I've a little more to do yet.

The backstory was important for me to have a handle on, I just didn't need to share it with others. :)

Janet said...

An excellent post, Karyn! I, too, am guilty of infodumping tons of backstory into the first three chapters. I'm thinking I do it in order to get the story straight myself. Hayley opened my eyes this weekend by writing her 'prologue' - a body of text telling her backstory that she will never use, but it will be there in order to keep the details straight. Silver spoke of this yesterday on her guest blog over at Happy Endings.

If I don't know the story inside and out, how will I convey the nuances and relevant bits to my readers. So, I will write the 'prologue' with the knowledge that it's for me and me alone. Then, armed with that information, I'll intersperse through conversations, flashbacks, dreams to advance the plot :)

All good in theory.

Here's a link to Nelson Literary Agency blog - a great article on backstory (to add to Karyn's already informative post :) Pubrants

Karyn Good said...

Hi Anita. Boy, contest judges' comments can be confusing to try and navigate. At least, in the end you realized what you needed to do.

Too many flashbacks are never a good thing but so tempting to include. That's why its great to have critique partners.

Karyn Good said...

Hey Silver. The Tir Nan Og trilogy sounds very intriguing! It sounds like flashbacks are used as a plot element and to reveal exposition. Very interesting!

I know what you mean. I have created some very lovely, touching, emotionally charged backstory and 95% of it has to go but it did give me a better understanding of my hero and what makes him tick.

Good luck getting your scissors back.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn, I guess I slipped up there... congrats on the new identity. :)

We'll have to get your 'label' changed too, because that's the last thing I looked at before I responded to your post.

I agree about the Critique Partners (CP's). They are great.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I used dreams and "waking dreams" several times in "Seeing Things" because the heroine Leah is a psychic. She has visions that take her to another place. She also has several dreams of her dead sister who acts as a guide in the psychic world. I think this is the only book that I've used a dream/flashback kind of thing.

Like you, I have a burning desire to spit out all the backstory in the opening paragraphs, a desire I have to beat with a stick.

Janet, I just read the piece about backstory at Pubrant. That was probably the best explanation of backstory I've ever read. The writer said it's not about the backstory, it's about now and the characters and where the backstory has brought them (really bad paraphrasing). Which got me thinking about my current WIP and why I think I was having trouble understanding my hero. I haven't really showed how the backstory affected him. I told the reader about it, but I don't think I showed it. Big difference.

Food for thought. Thanks Karyn.


Karyn Good said...

Thanks for the link Janet. An author only prologue does sound like a great way of dealing with backstory. As long as you know it the reader doesn't necessarily have to be privy to most of it.

Karyn Good said...

I'm a bit slow on the uptake today Anita because it took me 10 minutes to figure out what 'label' you were referring to. Family party last night and too much wine consumed.

I scheduled this post over a week ago, before the crazy name change idea occurred. I'll have to remember that for next time though. :)

Karyn Good said...

Hi Jana. It's a great link. I skimmed it over and will go back when I've a bit more time. You've made a great point, much more powerful to show the reader then stopping the story and telling them.

Now I'm off to find a big stick.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Karyn, I'm looking into backstory a lot right now as I'm preparing myself for a mid-progress rewrite of the beginning of the ms. The original beginning was a LOT of exploration, getting to know characters, figuring out plot, etc, and I knew a lot of it wouldn't last. Now I'm going to finally go back and rewrite it (a slim few chapters rather than the original chunk). This time I'll know the backstory so the exploratory chunks aren't necessary. They were good for the first time around though. I'll also be incorporating the historical info from the 'prologue' Janet mentioned, which touches on your question for fantasy world-building.

Larger-scale backstory (towns, countries, continents) is, in my opinion, less welcome than personal backstory. Digression into explaining how things work, a country's history, etc, takes away the reader's chance to experience the world as a member. It's a lot of information at once, without context, and the chance for immersion in cultural habits, colloquialisms, etc, get lost. Plus the reader doesn't care yet, the same as character backstory dumps. I wrote a fairly long exploratory monologue to get an in-character perspective of a significant historical event, but if it makes its way into the manuscript, it will be in little bits at a time, and most likely in dialogue. What it revealed to me instead were the little turns of phrase and superstitions that give those historical events a presence, and pique curiosity.

In my experience as a reader, the most important thing about backstory is curiosity (and as others have commented, dispensing information relevant to the present and plot, not arbitrary history). A good example is Toni Morrison's Beloved, where she finally drops us down to witness the book's central atrocity at the point where curiosity and vague, circular hints have us clamouring to finally know the whole account. In a more contemporary read (and a smaller scale info dump), I spent the first couple chapters in a recent book realizing no one had said why the mc was moving to stay with the other parent. When it finally came, I actually did want to hear it, and it came in a conversation that also developed an important relationship, so it was good. Those early curiosities are the little tidbits that keep us wondering and moving forward until the major conflict gets us rooted and involved the whole way, and I often find if I know those answers too soon, the curiosity vanishes and I've no reason to plod ahead.

And now that I've written you a novella in reply, I'm going to grab some lunch.

Karyn Good said...

Hey, Hayley. I love your novellas. I bow to your (and others) ability to create them.

You raise great points and give some great ideas. Some clues, a few hints working to get the reader to a place where they care to receive more information.

Can't wait to read more of your story.

Ban said...

and now I want to read your prologue Hayley !!! any chance you'll post it on BB ?