That Sneaky Backstory

Today, I have the privilege of having fellow romance writer Justine Dell with us. If you're not following Justine, go check her out.  She has a fantabulous blog right over here full on insightful and helpful posts. :)

Now, she's going to give us the dirt when it comes to backstory...

First I would like to say thank you to Roni for allowing me the opportunity to do a guest blog while she is away!

Now, let’s talk about dreaded backstory!

My Great and Powerful Beta of Oz gave me the following book for my birthday this past August:

 Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

If you don’t have this book—get it. It has helped me leaps and bounds in the short month I’ve had it.

In Chapter 23, Donald Maas discusses low tension: burdensome backstory. I know what you’re all thinking, “There’s no backstory in the beginning of my wip. I know this rule.”

I beg to differ. Politely of course ;-) I thought I had this rule down pat, too. I was wrong.

In the first chapter of your book do you have any setup? Are you bringing any “players” to the stage? Do you establish a setting? Set up a situation? I’ll bet the answer is yes.

Take the first part of my first ever finished wip: Broken Ties That Bind. The first scene introduces the heroine, her husband, and showcases the turmoil in their marriage—right before the heroine meets the hero.

Now, I thought this information was important because I wanted to show the heroine is a state of conflict before I dumped her on top of the hero (who adds another conflict to her marriage).

I was wrong. Here’s the exercise Donald tells us to do in order to fix this problem:

  1. In the first fifty pages of your novel, find any scene that establishes the setting, brings the players to the stage, sets up a situation, or that is otherwise backstory.
  2. Put brackets around the material, or highlight it in your electronic file.
  3. Cut and paste this material into chapter fifteen. Yes, chapter fifteen.

He adds this as a follow up:

“Now, look at chapter fifteen. Does the backstory belong there? If not, can it be cut outright? If that is not possible, where is the best place for it to reside after the midpoint of your novel?

Then he tells us this:

“Authors bog down their beginnings with setup. Why is that? While writing, the opening chapters, the novelist is getting to know his characters. Who are they? How did they get to be that way? The fact is, the author need to know these things, but the reader does not. The reader needs a story to begin.”

So, you know what I did? I did it! And while scary, it worked. Now my novel actually reads differently.

Instead of the reader knowing my heroine is married and in trouble, they wonder why she brushes of the advances of a guy whom she is obviously attracted to. She’s nervous for reasons the readers want to find out about.  It isn’t until later you discover she’s married and then it’s like “whoa” for the reader.

Try it. I’ll bet you’ll end up with something amazing. And remember why Donald wants us to do this:

“If you must include the backstory, place it so that is answers a long-standing question, illuminating some side of a character rather than just setting it up.”

You’ll get your own “whoa” moment. I promise. ;-)


So have you caught backstory sneaking into your early chapters? What's your biggest challenge when it comes to backstory?

**Today's Theme Song**
"The Story" - 30 Seconds to Mars
(player in sidebar, take a listen)