September 16th, 2016

Margie’s Rule #17: Finessing Backstory

Margie Lawson

Writers know the cautions about backstory. I’d bet every basic how-to book for writers warns against overwhelming readers with too much backstory.

Backstory usually kills pacing.

Backstory usually kills momentum.

Backstory usually kills your chances with an agent or editor.

What is backstory?

It’s story history that the writer needs to know to build their story. Usually the reader only needs to know some of that history. Usually the reader needs to know less backstory than the writer thinks they need.

Why avoid backstory dumps and chunks?

They are invitations to skim.

A lot of readers skim backstory. They may speed-read a word in every line, skipping down to where the story picks up again.

No way you want anyone skimming any of your paragraphs. That’s why you’re reading this blog.

I came up with the sentence below when I was teaching an Immersion class in Australia last month.

She hadn’t been this tired since she drove across Australia from Perth to Melbourne, trying to get there before her father died.

What does that sentence accomplish?

1. We learn that she loved her father.
2. We learn that her father is dead.
3. Deepens characterization.

Today I’m sharing one rhetorical device that works well for finessing backstory. It’s called anaphora.

Anaphora — Repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three or more successive phrases or sentences. The first three must be in a row.
Using Anaphora to Slip in Backstory
1. The Woods, Harlan Coben

I’ve never seen my father cry before—not when his own father died, not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first heard about my sister, Camille.

Deep Edit Analysis:

Anaphora: not when, not when, not even when

The reader picked up four hits of backstory in one cadence-driven sentence.

1. never seen father cry
2. not when his father died
3. not when mom ran off
4. not when he first heard about Camille

That one sentence is so smooth and empowered, there’s no temptation to skim.

It worked well, right?

2. The Last Breath, Kimberly Belle, 4-time Immersion Grad

From the moment Cal arrived on the scene—before my father was a suspect, before he signed on as my father’s attorney, even before Ella Mae’s body had been photographed and bagged and carried away—his belief in my father’s innocence has been unwavering.

Deep Edit Analysis:

Anaphora: before, before, even before

Five hits of backstory in that empowered sentence:

1. Cal went to the scene of the murder
2. Dad was a suspect
3. Cal became Dad’s attorney
4. Ella Mae was murdered.
5. Cal fully believed Dad was innocent

Wow! Look what the reader learned. Impressive.

3. Red-Headed Stepchild, Jaye Wells, USA Today Bestseller

The paragraph below is the first paragraph in the first chapter of Red-Headed Stepchild.

Jaye Wells wrote this paragraph when she was in a full day workshop I taught for Dallas Area Romance Authors in 2007. I asked all the participants to write an example of anaphora.

Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal. So I ignored the chipped onyx polish. I ignored the dirt caked under my nails. I ignored my palms, rubbed raw and blistering. And when a snapping twig announced David’s arrival, I ignored him too.

Strong writing!

Deep Edit Analysis:

Anaphora: I ignored, I ignored, I ignored

Three Humor Hits:

  1. Digging graves is hell on a manicure
  2. good vampires clean up after every meal
  3. I ignored him too

What does the reader learn in those 53 words?

1. She’s digging a grave.
2. She’s a vampire.
3. She gets manicures.
4. She’s Goth.
5. She’s been digging that grave for a while.
6. She’s not concerned about David catching her digging a grave.
7. She’s not intimidated by David.

You can tell Jaye Wells had fun writing that anaphora.

In that one short opening paragraph, Jaye Wells deepened characterization, shared a strong and fun voice, and made the reader want to read more.

4. Fear No Evil, Allison Brennan, NYT Bestseller

From Chapter 1:

Fourteen years ago she wanted the exact same thing as Lucy–to get out from under her parents’ thumb. But that was before she’d decided to become a cop.

Before she realized how truly dangerous the city could be. Before she realized that justice wasn’t always swift, that the system didn’t always work.

That some murders would never be solved.

Deep Edit Analysis:

1. She and Lucy both wanted to get away from their parents.
2. She’s a cop.
3. The city is dangerous.
4. Justice isn’t guaranteed.
5. Some killers may never be caught.
6. Two anaphoras: Before, before, before; that, that, that.

Strong character. Strong voice. Strong writing.

5. Blinded, Stephen White, NYT Bestseller

My Sherry? After my heart attack she couldn’t wait to get the hell out of our house. Out of town. Screw Thanksgiving, screw my rehab, screw whatever this whole thing was doing to Simon. Screw our marriage.

Screw me.

Deep Edit Analysis:

1. He had a heart attack.
2. His wife left him after he had a heart attack.
3. He’s in a cardiac rehab program.
4. He knows his heart attack and Sherry leaving has to be tough on their son Simon.
5. He knows his marriage is over.
6. He feels screwed.

Another strong voice, but oh-so-different. Stephen White shared humor and heart and the POV character’s I’m-so-screwed attitude.

BLOG GUESTS: I’m curious. What scene elements do you skim?

Do you skim backstory? Setting? Thoughts?

Share your ideas!

Thanks so much for dropping by WITS blog today.

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Margie LawsonMargie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over a hundred full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and on cruises in the Caribbean.
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128 comments to Margie’s Rule #17: Finessing Backstory

  • This was a tough read for someone who loves a good flashback. (I blame the love for 1980s movies for that.) (montages, too.) That being said, I do understand the lack of necessity. Definitely food for thought.

  • Perfect timing Margie. I’m doing a rewrite and slashing big chunks. I need to keep some of the information. I’ll give anaphora a try. Slivers of glass are better.

    • margielaw

      Hello hmgnosis —

      Ah — You remember my piece on slipping in slivers of backstory. Good onya!

      I recently returned from 5 weeks in Australia. Had to share some Aussie-speak. 🙂

      Have fun writing anaphora.

      Remember — I teach writers how to use 30 rhetorical devices in my Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and Beyond course!

  • Karen

    I tend to skim when there is solid blocks of writing with no white space.
    I enjoyed this article.

    • margielaw

      Karen —

      I skim those solids blocks too. Or I quit reading.

      If you don’t know about my lecture packets, check out my BIG THREE:

      1. Empowering Characters’ Emotions

      2. Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and Beyond

      3. Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist

      I bet you’ll be glad you checked them out. 🙂

      Thanks for posting!

  • Perfect timing! I just worked on a scene last night that had some backstory info- going to check it again 😉 Great info!

  • I try to introduce backstory gradually. The example I use is TV cop shows. You start with the present, then fill in the backstory as you go along.

  • Ah, gee, I try to avoid stories that give too much detail on any one element. For example: a villain might be mixing up a poison to use, si I want to know what kind of poison, how he got it, but I don’t need to know all the names of the poisons he thought about using before deciding. Long detailed lists or explanations of anything bore me (and quite often I just give up on the book)–all I really want is the heart of the thing so I can get on to the actual murder….I love good setting, love to be brought into that place, brought to a physical and emotional response to the place, but I don’t need to know every kind of tree or plant that grows there. A few choice ones, ones that have an emotional appeal or repugnancy, ones that reinforce or change what I may have preconceived about that setting really stand out for me and do the job nicely.

    As for backstory, I often read books that provide too much, especially in a series where the author must bring the reader up to date in the beginning and then starts the “new” story…but often, authors take that way too far and if I’ve already read the preceding book, then I skip all or most of the “catch-up” stuff. (And what really gets me going is when the “catch-up” in the new book doesn’t match what really happened in the preceding book…yikes!)

    Too much thinking turns me off, so I skip some of that especially when it simply repeats what I’ve already discovered about the character. If the writer has already shown me that the character lacks self-confidence, I don’t need to hear all the character’s thoughts about why he/she doesn’t have it. One or two good thoughts (or even physical or emotional actions) will reinforce that lack for me.
    All of the above simply goes to show that too much of anything bores the reader.

    BTW MARGIE: I’ve referenced and linked my new website “writer’s resources page” to your site!!!!!

  • Brilliant post as always. I’ve already bought and studied (several time) your lecture packs. They’re what helped me move from being a querying writer to a published author (with HQN and Penguin Random House). But this post reminded me that I want to check out your immersion classes after talking to Kennedy Ryan the other day. <3

    Love these regular posts. They're always great reminders of points I need to pay attention to during edits.

  • Thanks, Margie. I love anaphora. I love tight writing. I love all your teaching.

  • I love how you’ve tied this very intuitive, rhythmically strong rhetorical device to the needs of telegraphing back story! Thank you!

  • And one more point all those amazing examples had in common – they left you with a burning question you want answered! It pulls you onto the next page, and the next, and the next….

    1. The Woods – What happened to Camille?!!!
    2. The Last Breath – but what about her? Does she believe in his innocence?
    3. Red Headed Stepchild – is David a vampire, too?
    4. Fear No Evil – Does she wish she was back under her parent’s thumb now?
    5. Fear No Evil – who is Simon, and – she’s built instant sympathy in me for this character.

    Thanks, Margie, for once again, showing us how it’s done!

    • Sarah Boshart

      Hi Laura,
      You are quite the backstory snippet queen yourself!
      We studied the opening of Sweet On You and Charla-Rae in Margie’s immersion – it is brilliant.
      Do you know if you google ‘bitch kitty bull semen’ the first hit on Google is your book!

    • Helloooooo 2-time Immersion-Grad and Cruise-Grad Laura Drake!

      I’m soooo glad you shared that point about backstory-loaded anaphoras leaving readers with a burning question.

      I always tell writers you’re brilliant. Thanks for providing more proof. 🙂

      I’m excited that I get to see you for several days at the WFWA Retreat next week!

  • Margie, it’s always so simple and easy when you point it out. The work come in adding those magnificent rhetorical devices to our own writing.

  • carrienichols

    I tend to skim in-depth descriptions of objects or places and giant chunks of internal monologue–give me dialogue over both of those.

    Great tips for slipping in backstory.

  • Like Karen’s comment above, I skim big blocks of writing with no white space. Your posts seem to always come when I need them. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder.

  • I’m a skimmer. I will even skim over sex scenes when reading. I like this article as I want to provide character information in backstory to readers but don’t want them to put the book down.

  • Thanks for another great post, Margie! I’ve been working on weaving backstory in, one crumb at a time. And I do love anaphora (I even sprinkle in my poetry 🙂 )

  • I’ve been revising/re-drafting forever (it seems), so this is perfect timing for correcting my tendency to give much too much information! Thanks so much.

  • I skim parts of setting. I really don’t care what type of furniture is in a room much less what the people are wearing. External setting? some is okay. Weather? I want to know that but a couple of sentences will do. Long sex scenes have me skimming through. Especially with some authors who basically have the same actions now with different people and maybe in a different setting.

  • christopherlentzauthor

    Thanks for putting this tool back on the radar. Love your use of examples. Really drives it home. Now I need to go drive an anaphora or two or three into my WIP.

  • As always, reading your posts sends me back to my WIP, Margie. Recently, I threaded in character-defining, theme-reinforcing backstory and even though I’ve been cutting, cutting, cutting, I see what’s left can have more power. Thanks for the timely post.

  • Fabulous!!! Must ether this out — paste on wall — re-read and read again.

    As a developmental editor, I don’t scan, I flash-read — looking for rhythm, for key words, for action verbs — allowing the words to move fluidly to create images. Anaphora slides into the mental flow like word foreplay…to the inevitable.

    Great fun — thanks so much for sharing, Margie!

    • Hello TigerX —

      Sounds like you’d love all 30 rhetorical devices I cover in Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More. Consider checking out the lecture packet.

      You’d be in a stylistic, cadence-driven word-lovers playground.

  • I love the anaphora technique. I’ve used it here and there but never knew it had a name.

    Like others here I tend to skip large blocks of text if after a sentence or two I realize it’s backstory I don’t need to know or info already gone over. Unless the prose is gorgeous and i want to soak in every bit of it.

    • Hello T. A. Munroe —

      Whoops. If you didn’t know about anaphora, you don’t know what I teach in the 250+ pages of lectures in my Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More class and lecture packet.

      You’re missing out on lots of opportunities to be strategic with rhetorical structure and style. Consider checking out that lecture packet and the 29 rhetorical devices you could be using to add power.

      No pressure. Just sharing info.

      Now you know. 🙂

  • I love anaphora…but have never used it for backstory. Heading back to my chunk of Backstory in my WIP to see if I can cut it to ONE sentence. This is great, thank you for sharing! I always learn a lot from you, Margie.

  • Hi Margie, Thank you for these “rules.” I’m reading and saving every single one! Cheers, Ashley Cockerill

  • Love using the anaphora technique, strengthened by completing some of Margie’s amazing courses. My writing now has so much more depth. Having said that, ha ha, I must be a weirdo. As a reader, I actually like a bit of backstory early in a novel. Not toooo much, just enough to give me a little bit of background to the characters. As a writer, I do be careful, only putting in slivers here and there.

  • Fantastic article! It came just as I started grappling with how best to insert backstory in an innocuous way, so it’s not intrusive, and so the reader doesn’t tune out, skim, or put the book down. Thank you for sharing these tips and examples with us. They helped a lot! In addition to the insertion of backstory in these examples feeling organic, they also made me want to read more of the books they came from!

    As far as what I tend to skim–I almost always skim prologues unless they grab me right away. I do the same with long, solid blocks of text that take up a huge part of a page.

  • Julie Mccullough

    I forgot to include what I skip or what puts me off a novel. I will skip paragraphs if there are too many unnecessary words or Anaphora gone wild. EG, one novel – a great story, I fell in love with the main man but it had almost 2 pages with every sentence beginning with ‘He’. Plus it had too much detail at times, EG, telling what he did with his left hand and what he did with his right hand. “He opened the (Such and such) until it was fully opened” as another example of unnecessary words. Something that puts me off is total lack of description of the characters. If I can’t ‘see’ them, I can’t continue reading the story. Plus swearing in the narrative puts me off. I don’t mind it in dialogue if it fits the character or scene.

  • Debbie

    I don’t skip passages as a rule. I think it was all those years grading high school and college compositions. One of my own professors once told me I should take the stack to the stair well and toss them down, assigning grades as to where the papers fell. So I’d just wrestle through each one to the end feeling at times I was the live lunch in the reptile cage.

    I’d forgotten the anaphora term. Thanks for the reminder and the great post.

    I was just looking at the course offerings yesterday and dreaming of taking an immersion class in my favorite state other than Kentucky.

  • Andrea R Huelsenbeck

    Margie, I love when you post on WITS. I always learn so much. You chose such great examples. I’m currently working through your Deep Editing packet, making my WIP sparkle.

  • Julie

    I like discovering that a technique I was aware of actually has a name. Such a useful post with great examples. Thank you.

  • tjoyce1

    I have learned so much since taking your courses, Margie. The EDITS system works wonders on identifying where you have too much backstory. I am sure I am keeping highlighter companies in business!

    As an author with so many books to read in order to support my friends, I find myself skimming more and more. Pace too slow, boring everyday conversation and info dumps are major skimming points for me.

    Since taking your course – I managed to cut down three pages of backstory into one opening line of my book, DISTRACTIONS.

    Somehow I’d survived the summer holiday from hell. A cheating boyfriend, a broken heart, and the drunken embarrassment of New Year’s Eve are thankfully all behind me.

    Thanks Margie…

  • tjoyce1

    Oops – forgot to add in my Anaphora in my previous comment.


    I already felt the pressure. Pressure to maintain my GPA for my scholarship. Pressure to be considered for an internship at Huntersville Accounting. Pressure from my parents to do well. Pressure from my own expectations.


  • Another great post with great examples! Many thanks. Looking forward to seeing you next week at WFWA!

  • Barbara Rae Robinson

    I rarely skim if I’m interested in a book. Except for chunks of backstory in a series that is recounting information I know. And i do like slivers of backstory. And I love anaphora. Excellent post, as usual, Margie.

  • Crikey! Crikey! Crikey!

    These examples are amazeballs! Thanks, Margie! Encourages me to frame and write! Yes, this type of backstory weaving is like those glass slivers, but very sharp glass slivers which send a shiver up my spine.

    Thanks for the post. Off to work on my backstory with anaphora. 🙂

  • Oops! Forgot to say where I skim. When a story is from multiple POVs and the author uses cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, and something crazy-exciting is happening, I’m in no frame of mind to wade through the next chapter of backstory from another character’s POV. Sometimes I go back, but sometimes not.

    And thank you, Margie, for your wonderful packs of resources to make us all better writers! And thank you for coming to Australia to teach! And thank you for planning to come back to Australia!

  • Sarah Boshart

    Hi Margie!

    Love that you used ‘onya’ in a reply earlier!

    I always, always, always skim lengthy setting descriptions. Has to be punchy and do its job quick then the story needs to move forward. (In my humble and very novice opinion…)

    Loving Lisa’s safari course online at LWA at the moment.

  • A perfectly timed post, Margie. I’m working on a scene with a dash of back story and this has already helped me empower emotions and cut skim-worthy sentences.

    As a reader, I’ll skim large sections of backstory, setting and other info dumps. If there’s not enough white space, I speed through those long paragraphs searching for something better… or if they’re a repeat offender, I may give up and move onto another book.

  • Sandra

    Really thought provoking post, Margie, and an excellent reminder to me while I plough through my manuscript revisions!

    When reading, I find I tend to skip too much description, repetitive thoughts or too much of the character in their own head, and lack of pace/where the story slumps. So now I just have to apply that radar to my own work.

    Love your insights, Margie. They have been a real, eye opening, revelation for me. So I hope I win one of the prizes. More of your wisdom is like striking writing gold.

  • Claudia Blood

    Hi Margie, Lovely article. See you in Oct. 🙂

  • Honored to be included, Margie! A little backstory from my backstory, above :: for me, it’s helpful to write out what happened, even if I don’t include most of it in the actual story. It’s the only way I can really get in my characters’ heads, and figure out not just what happened, but how they *feel* about what happened. When I do this work beforehand, the slivers that end up in the story carry much more weight. It takes a little longer to get there, but it’s worth the time and effort!

  • Abbie Sweany

    Just what my writing ordered! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  • bewarne

    Thanks, Margie. I could probably have used this a few days ago when I was preparing to send my first chapter to an editor,

    Oh, and, tjoyce, I don’t know you and am usually not inspired to jump in with positive comments, but I did like your opening sentences of, “Somehow I’d survived the summer holiday from hell. A cheating boyfriend, a broken heart, and the drunken embarrassment of New Year’s Eve are thankfully all behind me.”

    And thanks, Kimberly Belle. Margie gave us samples of your work in our immersion so I have been reading your stories, and it was nice to hear your tip.

  • Fae Rowen

    Margie, I love anaphora to inject backstory–short and sweet. I love that I’ll hear more from you in October at OCC’s birthday party. And I LOVE that I’m coming to my second Immersion class soon!

  • Thank you, Margie! What an awesome technique for conveying backstory. I’m definitely one of those readers who skips big chunks of backstory or description to get to the “good stuff.” Your blog posts and your classes teach us how to make it ALL good stuff. ♥

  • mirandamorganauthor

    Hi Margie, Anaphora does great double duty. I love how it layers in the back story without need for slapping in a chunk of detail, but also how it can display the tone. Dark, as the Fear No Evil example conveys or comedic like Red Headed Step-Child. Both tell you so much about the moods of the stories. Thanks for pointing this out so clearly!

  • When I think of backstory, I imagine the Star Wars movies. The first thing in every Star Wars movie is the words crawling up the screen. George Lucas borrowed this technique from the 1930s Buck Rogers serials. They explain the story to that point, then go away. You don’t get too much backstory after that. I think some people try to emulate that in their writing, with mixed results.

  • I tend to skip really detailed fight scenes. I get what the writer’s going for, but I find them confusing and I have to re-read to keep track of who is who.

  • I love anaphora – it gives a sentence rhythm, cadence, swing. And that makes it a great way of delivering those tiny slivers of backstory.

    *Off to manuscript to see where she can add anaphora backstory*

  • Julia

    As already mentioned by several previous writers in the comments, I, too, had never heard of the anaphora technique. I learnt SO much from your post. Thanks, Margie. I will be putting all this to use. Julia

  • Great blog Margie. Thanks for the reminder that rhetorical devices can help enliven backstory. I don’t mind reading passages where an author lets us into the mind of the character (within reason). But I skim long explanations of facts. I remember reading a novel by a well-known adventure writer in which someone sabotaged a hotel by unleashing legionnaire’s disease. That would have been a good plot point if it wasn’t for the two boring pages describing what the hotel owner had to do to get it out of the building’s air conditioning system. Yawn! I just needed to know that it was complicated and cost money. Whoops – better go and attack all those chunks of yellow in my own manuscript 🙂

  • Brynn Spears

    As always, Margie, I loved the examples you used to illustrate your teaching point. Anaphora made the writing flow beautifully in each and gave the reader snippets of great information. P.S. The Harlan Coben excerpt you used if from one of my favorite openings 🙂

  • Loved this! Great info on writing backstory. Thank you ! @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  • Weaving backstory is an art hard to master I’m reading The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve. It goes back and forth in time from 1800s to present, and the present story also has backstory. So far no skimming. Your lecture series has helped me improve my writing. I love playing with anaphora.

  • karenmcfarland

    Ana what? Anaphora. Margie, until now, I’ve never heard of it. Where have I been? Oh yeah, under a rock. But here’s the thing. Just like Lori Henriksen above, I too have read “The Weight of Water” by Anita Shreve. Actually I own several of her books. And yes, there is a lot of backstory in that book. Elin Hilderbrand is another one who likes to use backstory. Yet, I sail through. I find there is no reason to skim. Why? They are very well crafted. There are authors that not necessarily use backstory, but use a lot of exposition. Pages upon pages of exposition that aren’t really necessary, and that’s when I tend to skip forward. But then again, I am a fan of dialogue….You know, I look forward to putting anaphora to use. I think it’s a great way of sharpening my skills and tightening plot. And I do not want any of my readers to skip. Thank you Margie!! 🙂

  • Page after page of gray matter and long drawn out room descriptions make me yawn, and sex scenes that tell you where every finger, palm, or hand is at the moment ruins it for me. I seldom don’t finish a book, but I won’t pick up another by that author.
    Anaphoras are cool. I can write them and get away with the “filtering” word from my CPs!
    Awesome post, Margie!

  • Margie
    Splinters of glass … easy to remember and very painful as the big blocks of back story are dumped from my word count.

    I loved your post and wanted to add that when I need to ease my way into the mood of the POV character) I just randomly open one of your lecture packages and read it slowly, out loud, and pretty soon I’m writing. You are an inspiration and I’m very grateful that I found you.

  • creating interesting and the just the right amount of backstory is often a hard task.

    When reading I don’t mind backstory if it’s written well and relevant (i.e. we wont’ understand what is happening without it) but otherwise, little bits like the examples Margie has shared, give so much in just a few choice words in an interesting way that push the story forward, and keeps the pace.

  • Your posts always inspire me to try harder! Thanks, Margie

  • “So many books, so little time.” (my motto)

    I skim if there’s too much technical detail. I just want to know what the time is, not how to make a watch.

    I normally read in bed, so if I start a new book I’ll read several pages. If I pick up that book the next night and don’t have a clear recollection of what’s going on, I’ll re-read, but if the same thing happens the next night, I dump the book. Life’s too short to read bad books.

    My WIP has one whole chapter of back-story. Obviously it has to go, so that’s my current challenge. How to condense it down to a couple of lines. Can’t do the dialogue route as there’s only the one character in scene at the time.

    I’m one of Margie’s latest ‘batch’ of Melbourne Immersioners. Was intense but enjoyable. Learned heaps and will be forever indebted to Margie.

  • Anne

    Thank you for your post and the examples you have given. I am greatly inspired to use this technique.

    • Hello Anne —

      Thanks so much for letting me know you’re inspired!

      I hope you check out the descriptions of my lecture packets on my website. Dozens and dozens of more deep editing learning opportunities!

  • Sheri Humphreys

    Hi Margie! One thing I will always skip is what they ate. Those loooooong menus. LOL


      Sheri —

      I have to CONGRATULATE YOU on your awesome KIRKUS REVIEW for A HERO TO HOLD!

      I have to CONGRATULATE YOU on being awarded a KIRKUS STAR!

      I have to CONGRATULATE YOU on A HERO TO HOLD being chosen as a Kirkus’ Indie Book of the Month Selection for November!

      I’m thrilled and proud and excited!

      Thanks for chiming in too. 😉

  • Rita Galieh

    Now I know even a decent backstory won’t cut it. I want to write so that editors appreciate the finesse. So that writers just sit back and read. So that readers hang on the plot.

    I want to WRITE!

    Gotta get Margie’s courses.

  • I don’t skim backstory if it’s riveting. For my own writing, I desperately need backstory finessing! First, I had the backstory as a prologue. Then I changed the prologue to a first chapter and wove backstory into it. Not sure which is right…..

    • Hey Vonnie —

      It’s been a l-o-n-g time since I’ve cyber-seen you! Great to see your smile again.

      Hmm… Making your prologue your first chapter, and weaving backstory in, may not be your best choice either. Consider if your reader absolutely needs all the backstory you think they need. I bet you can lighten that backstory load.

  • Love anaphora. Thanks, Margie. The late Rita Gallagher used to caution to avoid backstory entirely until Chapter 3 so the reader would know the characters enough to care.

    • Hello Jeanne!

      Great to see you again!

      Rita Gallagher — and others — have been credited with that piece about avoiding backstory in the first three chapters. But some writers follow that advice then shovel their backstory in the fourth chapter. Aack! 🙂

  • Lisa Roe

    Thank you Margie! I just went back and rewrote a piece of backstory using anaphora. It was fun and works better now!

    • Hello Lisa Roe —

      Wow! You just tried anaphora — and you like it better than what you had before.

      Hmm… Soooooo many learning opps in my lecture packets and online courses. And I bet you could apply them well too.

      Just had to share…

      If you have questions about my courses or lecture packets, contact me through my website.

  • Carla

    I tend to skim when there is too much description of a physical location or wardrobe. Especially if that description is in a place where it’s becoming a barricade, keeping me from reading the juicy part that’s about to happen. I want to get to it.

  • One of Elmore Leonard’s golden rules: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

    The key is having a good, honest first reader who can tell you when the narrative has gone off the track. Writing lots of description is either a sign of excellent visualization and research…or an indication the author hasn’t got a clue what’s going to happen next and is stalling for time.

    So many books these days–whether traditionally published or print-on-demand–are horribly over-written and under-edited. Paring down a narrative, “killing your darlings” is a soul-breaking task but it’s one that must be accomplished if you’re to be taken seriously as an artist.

    Close, critical scrutiny is a hallmark of fine literature…

    • Cliff —

      Well said!

      My fave quote by Elmore Leonard:

      If it sounds like a writer wrote it, rewrite.

      Most writers need to heed that rule. They use words in thoughts that the character would know, but they’d never think those words in that situation. Those thoughts read like a writer wrote them.

      Thanks for sharing!

  • I actually like some backstory, providing it is interesting. I don’t mind being ‘in the loop’ early on. One thing I really DON’T like is writers being told by their editor to ‘leave that to the reader’s imagination.’ No, sorry, when I buy a book I am paying that author to entertain me with THEIR imagination. If I have to imagine a lot of the story and details, I may as well just lay in bed at night and imagine a whole story and save same money. 🙂

  • My current WIP has a great deal of backstory. And though when I revise I know I will cut some of it, right now I try to weave it in using different techniques – dialogue, using MC’s memories are examples but anaphora is phenomenal. Question, the technique is so eye-catching and impactful, can it be used more than once in a story or used in selected sections?

    • Hello Wila Phillips —

      Anaphora can be used MANY TIMES per book. Several NYT bestsellers almost always use anaphora in their first chapters, often on their first pages. NYT bestseller Harlan Coben used anaphora five times in the first chapter of NO SECOND CHANCE. And it wasn’t too much.

      Anaphora is just one of the 30 rhetorical devices I cover in one of my online courses — Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More. I only teach most of my courses once a year. The lectures for several of my courses are packaged as lecture packets ($22 per course). Lecture Packet may be a misnomer. Each of my courses has 250+ pages of lectures. They’re big packets.

      Now you know a little more about what is available to you. Thanks for listening. 🙂

  • sandy robinson

    wow – so much power in a few words – like backstory myself but I see how it has to be used carefully! Thanks


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  • Victoria Marie Lees

    As usual, great information here. Your examples and commentary are clear. I’ve shared generously online. I tend to skip dry commentary with million dollar words in it. But usually, I’m reading to learn how the author put together a story and why he or she is published. Thanks for all you do to assist other writers, Margie!

  • I skim when there are large blocks of text. I do much better when there’s a little white space on the page.

  • Gordon Petry

    Too late for the drawing, but I loved that fact that your essay started out using Anaphora. I was going to use anaphora in my reply, but then took too long to write it.
    Certainly worth the read, certainly going to be used, certainly very appreciated.
    Thank for a very helpful suggestion

  • […] When writing any story, we have to get the story elements balanced and make them carry their weight. Jami Gold tells us when backstory is necessary, and Margie Lawson explains how to finesse backstory. […]

  • […] Margie Lawson always offers great advice. This week she’s visiting Writers in the Storm to talk about a better way to add character backstory: by using rhetorical devices (anyone who knows Margie knows how much she loves her rhetorical devices): Margie’s Rule #17: Finessing Backstory […]

  • Melissa Menten

    I need to get serious about editing my WIP and one of the things that needs work is condensing the backstory. (Difficult with all the world-building my fantasy needs.) Thanks for this article. I just bought another lecture packet, but I’m always up for another class by Margie!

  • Kimberly Belle’s sentence was great!
    And yeah, too much BS is too much BS!


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