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August 29, 2019

Backstory: Avoid Info Dumping by Making It Essential: Part 1 — Guest: Kris Kennedy

Beautiful mountain in rear-view mirror with text: Must-Read Backstory...Is It Compelling?

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:
Part One

By Kris Kennedy 

Ugh, backstory.

Or…yay?

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.

How?

  • 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.

Backstory can:

  • 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)

How?

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.

Key One:
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.

Backstory does.

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.

Yep.

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.

Story fuel.

What Now?

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!

*****

Deception by Kris Kennedy book coverKris 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.

Connect with Kris at her website or Twitter, or…

*****

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?

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Clare O'Beara

Yes! I highly recommend making the backstory strong, but introduced gradually through conversation or needed action, rather than as a lengthy infodump when each new character is introduced. Keep the story moving.
Don’t forget, that in a story for young readers, the characters are shown building what will be their backstory in later life.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

My biggest hurdle is having a backstory that complicated. Not a problem in itself, but I tend to go to extremes with what to include. I either put trivial stuff in (stuff that I really only need to help write the story) and then have to pull it out later, or the important stuff is so ingrained into my brain I forget the readers don’t know about *that* yet, so I have to go back and fit it in.

Kris

Hi Star! The struggle is real. 🙂 The upcoming posts might give some sense of how to know what to include, by crafting the backstory very intentionally, and then finding the core emotional ‘shards of glass’ that live on to this day, shards that will get twisted by the current day plot/romance. Then that’s the stuff you put in. And it’s hard to forget about, b/c the underlying emotional issues are right in the character’s face, forced on them by the plot. This series of posts is a bit more about *crafting* backstory rather than how to write it on the page, but I do have Thoughts…. 🙂 As far as what to reveal when…one strategy can be to ask, “How will this bit of backstory info make the character’s situation more difficult–or their success more questionable–in the very next scene?” That question can prevent us from dropping in unnecessary bits of backstory, or dropping them in when we don’t really need it. Asking that helps to ensure we only give info that’s relevant to the unfolding story, and we only drop it in when it’ll increase tension. For ex… you only explain that your amateur-sleuth-heroine is still traumatized by her little brother’s murder when she was 15 y.o. AFTER someone is the current story is in mortal danger. (Or maybe has already been killed) And you don’t reveal that SHE was to blame for his death (or so she thinks) until she’s about to fail the person in danger…  — Read More »

Sieran

As a reader, I like it when the author shows us a bit of backstory at a time, to generate mystery and suspense. It’s very frustrating, however, if some of your questions don’t get answered by the end of the book, lol. Recently, I beta read a friend’s novel. Though I enjoyed it, I was annoyed that by the end of the story, I still didn’t understand the motives of the murderer… There wasn’t enough backstory to explain why she killed those people. :/

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