Ever since my plunge into this precarious life of a writer, I’ve been bombarded with the Dos and Don’ts of backstory. I have nothing against dos and don’ts— my life is riddled with personal ones that keep me moving forward instead of hanging around waiting for the next shoe to drop; there’s always a shoe— but understanding and application of said dos and don’ts are different skillsets in the toolbox.
A writer doesn’t need to get an A+ in physics to understand the dos and don’ts of backstory. Here are the highlights.
show don’t tell
avoid info dumps and lengthy flashbacks
weave in only nuggets of the past vital to the current action
Add the above to this advice from thrill writer James Scott Bell:
drop in only three sentences of backstory in the first five pages, spread out or use all at once, and no more than three paragraphs in the following five pages— again, spread out or use all at once, and you’re on your way to crafting a page turner.
Simple to understand. A nightmare to execute. Trust me. I’ve been one of the biggest offenders when it comes to telling, dumping and flashing— of course I may come by the last one honestly, since I was, once, a stripper.
Enter protagonist Kaitlyn, also a stripper. No, the book is not a memoir; it’s fiction. She’s just borrowing my issues. Her backstory is different from mine, which brings me, once again, to the revision because another revelation bonked this chicken little writer on the head this week.
Jump back to April when the prep work was done and the actual writing and revising began. My editor advised me to avoid the opening and go directly to the Bleeders— all the necessary pillars of the story that floundered from lack of intent, motivation or emotional truth. By doing so I had no other choice than to write from in medias res because, well, I was in the damn middle. Or what I thought was the middle; see last week’s post to get the skinny.
The Bleeders showed me how action demands urgency. Because the story needs to move, move, move or the Readers— and recently spellbound writer me— will look elsewhere for entertainment. This new understanding forced me to sprinkle in nothing more than a line or two of Kaitlyn’s history in order to clarify her motivation and strengthen the scene’s emotional complexity.
But here’s the rub. Kaitlyn is now being haunted by her backstory. In every scene some little niggle of the past pokes and stabs into her underbelly and it makes her do the darndest things. Some good, some horrible. And she can’t stop herself because her backstory forces her to do it. Like the scene in Wuthering Heights, where Catherine says, “I am Heathcliff,” Kaitlyn is her backstory. The events in her past made her who she is today. Her past shaped her POV. She will never get rid of it. Even when she changes to fulfill the arc of her story, her backstory will continue to resonate and keep her moving onward and upward.
Slide into Hitchcock’s Notorious, where Sebastian tells his mother that’s he’s married to an American agent, and she says, “Yes, it is easy to see now. I knew but I didn’t see.”
No telling how many times I’ve heard talks or read articles about POV and backstory. I understood the information, took notes and nodded like a bobble-head doll. But it didn’t sink in until Kaitlyn experienced it, which would’ve never happened if I hadn’t decided to revise.
Writing is rewriting. And that puts Victory in my ReVision!