Writing Wednesday: Newbie Pitfalls: Backstory

I decided to make this a series. In part, because I’m doing it to myself, too. If you feel called out, I promise, I’m right beside you.

Today’s newbie pitfall is back story.

Hear me out on this one. Backstory is good, and it can add depth and motive to a character’s actions. None of us spring into being as fully formed adults with no history, and neither should our characters. The problem comes when you dump the backstory into one place in a story. A favorite place of new authors is to dump it in the first chapter or at the first appearance of a new character.

There are a few problems with this. I get it, you want to make sure the readers know your character as they go through the story. ME TOO! I want the readers to know these characters and love them as much as I do.

Problem #1: The info dump. I’m going to throw myself under the bus here. I haven’t pulled my Salvation Triad yet but knowing I did this… I might. In fact, I may do it soon. Knowing what I know now, that first chapter could be cut down to about 300 words. I learned quickly and didn’t do it in the second or third book, but I was determined to let everyone know all about Alyssa. I detailed how she looked, what her living situation was, even her neighbor. Instead of having her come back from her morning run, I detailed that, too. Looking back, that opening chapter is embarrassing.

This is what happens when you try to put all the backstory in one place.

Solution:

Work that story into the rest of the book. Make it happen the way we get to know people. Did you meet your closest friend or your partner and know everything about their life within the first 5 minutes? Probably not.

Had I done that opening the way I know to do it now, you’d have found out that Alyssa likes to run when she invites her romantic interest to join her. You wouldn’t have known what happened in her family until the second book, when it becomes relevant. Her apartment likewise wouldn’t have been detailed until it needed to be. Readers would have come to know her, learned more about her, and been able to enjoy those moments of “Oh THAT is why she did this!”

Problem #2: Pacing

When we do the info dump, we kill our pacing. Just for the record, it doesn’t matter where we do an info dump, it kills the pacing. Readers get tossed into a swamp of descriptive terms. They’re smart enough to know they’re expected to remember all these things, and the blue curtains might be important later. They’ll also put it down and move on to a story that isn’t overwhelming them with information that doesn’t matter.

“But it does matter! It’s the reason behind everything!”

Yes, but why would that matter to the readers at the very outset? Have you built curiosity in them? Do they wonder why Isobel always lies about liking Jake? Do they know Marissa is hiding something about her past and want to know what happened to make her always so paranoid?

At the opening of the story, the answer is no.

Solution:

Save the backstory, work it in as you go. If you feel you must write it out, do what I do. Write it, and save it in a separate file. It’s a good reference point for you, but it’s not useful for your readers.

And now I think I might have to plan a date to pull my books. The more I think about that opening the more I want to go fix things. I also love everyone to death for reading through that slog. I mean, really, really love.

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