One aspect of writing craft that can be hard for newer writers to grasp is the importance of context. We hear about showing vs. telling or “writing tight” or leaving things in subtext, but the truth is that most writing elements don’t work if readers don’t have the context to understand what the elements mean.
Showing needs context to be powerful. Sharp dialogue filled with subtext can be just confusing or meaningless without context. We don’t know whether a line like — “What do you want?” — should be taken as threatening or pleading without information about the situation, motivations, emotions, or tone of voice. The same goes for many other elements of writing craft.
Context is why we usually need to include backstory for our characters. Backstory helps readers connect to our characters and provides context for their motivations, beliefs, and fears.
I’ve talked before about how to find the right balance of backstory, but just because we can get a good idea of when we need to include backstory doesn’t mean we know how to avoid boring backstory information dumps. So Kris Kennedy will be sharing how to craft must-read backstory through 5 guest posts over the next few Thursdays.
Please welcome Kris Kennedy! *smile*
Crafting Must-Read Backstory:
By Kris Kennedy
Love it or hate it, backstory is essential.
Our characters grew out of their backstories. It’s their pain and motivation. It’s the unique angles that make them sing and howl at the moon. It’s their whys and hows.
It explains everything.
Backstory Can Kill Story
Unfortunately, it can also kill Story.
- By slowing down the pace and bogging down the here-and-now story with then-and-there facts;
- By telling the reader why they should care about this character rather than showing
The truth is, authors often write backstory to satisfy ourselves, not the reader. We relay facts and information, hoping data will stand in for emotional investment.
But backstory that “tells” readers why they should care isn’t Story; it’s information. Now the reader knows something.
Readers don’t read to know. They read to feel.
So how do you make people care without drowning them in details?
How do you balance the need to explain the “whys” with the primary need to drive the story forward?
How do you make the reader care?
Well, the good news is…
Backstory Can Save Story
As much as backstory can kill Story, it can also save it.
- create powerful characters,
- increase stakes,
- ramp up plot,
- add tension,
- and give you theme.
No really, it can.
In fact, powerful backstory is the thing that can turn your protagonist into a hero. (hero = all genders)
I’ll show you!
Over the next few posts, we’ll dive into 5 simple, powerful strategies for turning backstory into Story fuel.
The first step is to make your backstory compelling.
Make It Compelling
What do I mean, “compelling”?
I mean it compels the character.
It’s made them who they are in pivotal ways. It’s created beliefs and driven them to actions—both pre-story and in-story—that push the story forward.
If your characters don’t have a powerful reason to be/think/do the things they are/think/do, it’s going to be very hard to have them arc.
Your All Is Lost moment will be all about plot, when what you really want is your protagonist reaching into the abyss of their inner self, facing their deepest fear, and climbing out again, transformed, crying out, Okay people, let’s do this thing!
Insight #1: Motivation & Backstory
Look, the deal is, your protagonist(s) are going to have a story goal.
You, gorgeous and evil Author, are going to put obstacles in their way. Lots of them. Soul-crushing, mind-bending, hurt-y obstacles.
That means a lot of reasons to quit.
Backstory can kill a story or save a story—how do we make it good? Check out these tips by @RomWriteLab Click To TweetYou need a protagonist who, when faced with the impossible task, the unbeatable enemy, their deepest fear, doesn’t say, “You know what? This is too hard/scary/insurmountable, let’s just go home and muddle through somehow.”
You need a protagonist who’s going to narrow their eyes and say (metaphorically), “You know what? This isn’t okay, and I’m going to fix it/stop it/change it.” (i.e. do “The Thing” required in Act III)
i.e. You need a highly motivated character.
You don’t get that from an Inciting Incident.
Insight #2: The Inciting Incident Isn’t Enough
The inciting incident introduces the main conflict and, in a romance, gets the romantic leads together (or in a sequel, starts tearing them apart).
The inciting incident gives you a story goal.
It doesn’t give you why that goal matters so much to the character.
Inciting incidents turn the key and start the story.
They don’t drive the story.
They don’t drive your protagonist.
Insight #3: It’s Personal Now
Compelling backstory infuses the story goal with meaning. The goal isn’t just the goal. It means something to the protagonist.
Something about them.
If they fail, it means _____________.
If they succeed, it means ______________.
You might recognize this by another name: Internal stakes.
Backstory gives you internal stakes. (Told you!)
Insight #4: Story Fuel
When you have a compelling backstory, the goal means something more than itself.
The corporate CEO isn’t just pushing hard to complete the biggest, most questionable buyout her company ever did simply to buy another, bigger car. She’s doing it to ensure she’ll never be weak—vulnerable—again.
The best kind of backstory creates fuel for the character *and* the story — by @RomWriteLab Click To TweetWhere on earth would something learn such a lesson about power and vulnerability? Their backstory.
The heroine isn’t just saving the family ranch. She’s proving she isn’t a failure. Where did she learn those things? Backstory.
The teenager isn’t just trying to win the student council election. He’s trying to find a way to belong. Backstory.
The warrior isn’t just saving a village. He’s making amends for past errors of judgment that destroyed someone he loved.
The high-powered DA isn’t just fighting injustice. She’s going after all the people who wronged her as a kid.
Or a billion+1 other possibilities.
The key is, it means something very personal, very private, and very deeply-seated to your character.
From that, you get character fuel.
Find ways to make your character’s backstory compel them to actions at a “big story” level as well as a micro level.
Pick 2-3 daily life things they do (or avoid doing!) because of something related to backstory.
Then find a highly personal reason the inciting incident matters so much to them. An emotional reason from their own past (possibly hidden from the world!) that the inciting event can actually “incite” them to action.
If you have a reluctant hero, no problem—find a reason from their backstory that they want to avoid getting incited, and ensure they take some specific, concrete action to try and avoid. (Of course, they must fail at this. Even if the intent is avoidance, they must take some small, active, concrete step that actually pushes them further into the story.)
Stay tuned for more tips on how to craft must-read backstory!
Kris Kennedy is a USA Today bestselling romance author, story coach, freelance editor, owner of Romance Writing Lab & host of the craft-focused Romance Writers Summit (launching Fall 2019). She’s taught for Romance Writers of America, multiple online writing chapters, Writer University, and Savvy Authors.
- To check out her books: kriskennedy.net
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- To get personalized attention for your stories, contact Kris for story coaching or developmental editing!
Thank you, Kris! You’re so right that backstory can be a key element to help readers relate to and care about our characters. Yet as you said, that only works if we’re making backstory compelling reading that engages readers’ emotions.
Kris’s insights into how backstory creates a character’s stakes and motivation are perfect. However, I’ve read stories before where the backstory was needed information, but it was presented so dry and “telling” that I was tempted to skip anyway. Not good.
The best backstory is presented when readers need the information and in a way that will make readers care. Come back next week Thursday for more from Kris on how we can ensure that our necessary backstory is must-read storytelling. *smile*
Do you struggle with backstory? What’s the trickiest aspect of backstory for you? Have you read stories with necessary-but-boring backstory? Do Kris’s insights give you ideas for using backstory in your writing? Do you have any questions for Kris?Pin It