Writers in the Storm

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March 11, 2015

Keeping a Secret - A Great Backstory Technique

Readers are smart. Smarter than we authors give them credit for. They get where we’re going way before we think they do. I think that’s why it’s so hard to give them an ending that will shock them.

I mean, think of the books you've read. How often have you been truly stunned by a plot turn, or an ending? I can think of two: The Haunting of Hill House (still getting over that one, and I read it in high school!) and South of Broad, by Pat Conroy.  Films? The Sixth Sense and Primal Fear. That’s it.

Oh sure, I've been surprised by others – where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, didn’t see that coming,’ and I move on. But not stunned.

I don’t write mysteries, but in those, you’re usually reading to find out whodunit, not what the ending will be, right? It’s a foregone conclusion that the bad guy (whoever he is) will be, if not apprehended, at least revealed at the end. And mystery aficionados usually narrow the choices to at least two by that time, right?

I’m talking about a reveal that shocks.

Why is it so hard to surprise readers? Because, while they’re reading, they’re thinking. They’re noting small details and storing them, to be used later to draw conclusions. And because readers are so smart, it takes a lot less clues than you think they’re going to need to get there.

I’m considering this subject because I just finished a women’s fiction novel that isn’t a mystery, but has a reveal at the end of the book. This subject in the background the entire book, but it’s the basement of the plot, characters and motivation that the entire book rests on.

So yeah, it’s important.

I want the reveal to come as a shock to the reader. When I finished South of Broad (no spoilers here - I’m not ruining it for you) I felt like I’d walked into a door. Then I put my head on the table and cried. Now, I’m no Conroy (though I aspire, impossibly, to be), but I want this reveal to hit the readers in the gut – to make them at least pause to take a breath as the implications dawn.

But how do you do that? I’m certainly not the expert, but I’ll share what I've learned from this book.

First, the protagonist can’t know the secret. I mean, we’re in their heads the entire book – if this is a big deal to them, they’re going to be thinking about it. If they know it, we’ll know it. You can’t withhold facts to manipulate the reader – it pisses them off. Remember Stephen King’s, Misery? ‘Nuf said.

The secret can’t be the total purpose of the book. If the reader is waiting 320 pages only for a reveal, they’re going to be at best frustrated, at worst, your book will hit the wall way before they’re done. Even if you’re Pat Conroy, you’re not that good.

In my case, the mystery pertained to the past. It’s backstory.

I learned a lot about the effective use of backstory from this book, because it forced me to focus on NOT putting in the actual event.

My story is of two sisters, told third person from the older sister’s POV. We get a hint that something bad happened to the younger sister, in the first scenes. By the third chapter, she’s fallen into serious depression. The reader will probably think/guess it pertains to some kind of sexual abuse.

My protagonist (the older sister) didn't know the secret. But I did. I had to be vigilant not to let the protag. in on the secret (and yes, it sounds like I’m dealing with a real person, but y’all are writers – you get that they ARE real, right?)

Knowing how hard it is to keep a secret from the reader, I came at this from a different direction. Instead of dropping clues, I worked hard NOT to. I scrutinized every tiny detail to be sure I wasn't saying one word more than what was needed to make the plot hold, and the motivations make sense.

And in doing this, in taught me the BEST way to handle backstory. Which is, using as little of it as possible.

When the younger sister falls into a catatonic state, she’s put in a mental facility. The older sister gets a job that takes her on the road. She has her own arc – her own problems and challenges.  The story moved on. This not only distracts the reader from the mystery, it (if I did it well), makes the book rich and layered. The mystery falls into the background, as I wanted/needed it to. The book is really the older sister's story.

The backstory stays alive through the protag’s thoughts. Think about it. If this happened to you, how would your sister being catatonic effect you? This is a great way to slip in slivers of backstory.

Thoughts: Wouldn't your mind keep coming back to the problem like a toddler’s hand to a checkout stand candy display? Even if you don’t have the answer, your mind would work at the problem.

Focus on the details: Have you ever lost a loved one? I have, and I still see that person in the flash of a second - a stranger’s gait from behind, the curve of a cheek, in passing. I want to pick up the phone and call, when I see something that would tickle them. I'll caress a shirt I know they’d love on a rack I pass in a store.

Flashbacks: These can be powerful, but again, you need a lot less than you think. I inserted only a couple of two-paragraph slivers, maybe twice, in the whole book. They deal with the sisters’ childhood, to explain the older sister’s world-view.

The above are what our own Orly Konig Lopez calls, Tiny Tells. They are a split second reminder to the reader. They build the character, one small tell at a time. They are a subtle reminder of the sister, who, though not on-scene through most of the book, is still there in the background.

Which is my last point.

Always Trust Your Reader

Remember how smart they are. You need a LOT less details, hints and backstory than you think.

This is what I learned, by writing my book. Did I apply what I learned well?

I have no idea. I’ll let you know when the book comes out, and you can judge for yourself.

Do you have any tips for using backstory, or keeping Secrets?

Any books or movies whose end actually stunned you?


About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot (May 2013), Nothing Sweeter (Jan 2014) and Sweet on You (August 2014). The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her 'biker-chick' novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin's Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. The Reasons to Stay released August, 2014.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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60 comments on “Keeping a Secret - A Great Backstory Technique”

  1. It sounds fascinating, Laura. Any news on when this will be published? I think it does take great restraint to keep details under wrap.

    A book that had a plot twist that shocked me was Gone Girl. What impressed me with the twist was the way it was revealed in the very structure of the novel. No spoilers from me either!

    1. I didn't read it, Deb, because someone told me - not the ending - but that it would destroy me. I'll leave the destroying to real life, thanks.

      But I'll probably see the movie when it hits Netflix.

      Your books have mystery in them - any tips for us?

      Oh - the book isn't sold yet, but I'll let you know!

  2. Great article. The end of Rosemary's Baby changed my reading habits. The shock went too deep. Though I like mysteries, when the mystery gets intense, the hairs on the back of my neck stick out and I have to read the end. Can't take another shock like that.

    1. You're right, Pat - Rosemary's Baby had a killer ending. So did Levin's other one - Boys of Brazil.

      But we're opposites - I LOVE an ending that shocks me! But then, I'm a thrill seeker...

      Thanks for reading!

  3. All I can tell you is that I try to drop hints and clues sparingly. My process has been similar to yours - I sometimes referred to it as 'reverse plotting.' On a large poster board, I create squares for every chapter. After I FINISH a chapter, I write in the external plot clues. That way, I can know at a glance, what's been revealed. I do try to outline pre-writing and that helps too, although I'm not detailed and the book never goes the way I imagine it will.

    I look forward to using the spreadsheet you offered us a couple of weeks ago!

    1. Wow, Deb - I would love to do that! Unfortunately, I tried pre-plotting the book I just started, and all I did was spend days frozen in front of the screen (not to mention all the social media time!)

      My brain just won't go there. Awesome tips - I'm sure they'll help others!

  4. Yes - tiny tells is a great way to describe it and I agree that it makes a big difference if the protagonist knows the secret or not. I find that I get frustrated when there's a "secret" to be revealed, but it's not really a secret and I just want the author to reveal it and move on. On the other hand, when the protagonist learns of it at the same time we do, then it is much more effective. I like to call these moments "twists". In my current book, I drop hints to a particular event that happens later in the book, and it really isn't (or shouldn't) be a surprise... but that's not the twist so I don't worry about that part.

    Do you find that your subconscious inadvertently leaves hints in the writing? And for this current book, did you have to edit out those inadvertent tells?

  5. Oh yeah, baby! You had me at the twist. A couple that blew me away, "We Have to Talk About Kevin" by Lionel Shriver (a total shocker) and "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty (breadcrumbs were identifiable only in retrospect). Both were "Whoa, did not see that coming." Just finished "The Good Girl" by Mary Kubica and I was both surprised and heartsick. Incorporated a twist in my recent release, but only readers can let me know if it was really the surprise I intended. Can't wait to read yours!

    1. Oh, thanks, Densie - you've just increased my TBR pile! I've actually started Big little Liars - I'm going to have to stop reading three books at once, and finish that one!

  6. Laura, this is a terrific post--insightful AND useful. And I love the sound of your new book!

    1. Thanks, Holly - I loved this book. I never thought I'd write a book I like better than The Sweet Spot, but this one did it. We'll see if it's as good on paper as it was in my head!

  7. Being a rookie, I realized I did just that. Revealed too much too early. Now I'm in the process of revising and trimming the excess fat (backstory) of my romance novel after attending the deep PoV course that Rhay Christou lectured through Margie's online courses. What an eye-opener!

    As for books that shocked me, yes, Gone Girl did it big time for me. I hand't seen that coming and, trust me, I see things coming before others even take a whiff. Actually, that's what shocked me. That a book managed to shock me 🙂 That doesn't mean I liked the book, though.

    Great article. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for commenting, MM - Rhay has amazing courses at Lawson's Writer Academy! Anyone looking for writing courses, I highly recommend them.

      It may help to add to Margie's Highlighting technique - and give one color exclusively to backstory (black, maybe? 😉 then go through and highlight ONLY that. I was surprised how much I had, at first.

  8. A technique that I like is dropping a single little clue so early in the story that the reader doesn't even realize they are supposed to be looking for clues. They just accept it. That way when the reveal happens it's a WHOA! moment, like I didn't see that coming, but I should have.

    1. Yes! You're right Mary Ellen - that's just how Conroy did it in South of Broad! I noted it and moved on. He didn't mention it again until the last page or so. But still, it stunned me.


  9. Thinking about it, I tend to have my shocking moments mid-book, so maybe more of a twist that then effects the rest of the story, with the ending being more of a wrap up than a shock. I've had many "I didn't see that comings" but they always refer to mid-book. Hmm. Contemplating the end of book three, so this is helpful. Thanks, Laura! <3

  10. Great article, Laura. Looking forward to your book. I was shocked by Gone Girl but all in all I disliked the book, or maybe I should say the characters. Sixth Sense did shock me. Of course looking back I felt as though I should have seen it coming and didn't.

    Thanks again for the post. I'll keep it for future reference when I tackle revisions on my romantic suspense.

    1. That, was what was so brilliant about Sixth Sense for me, Carrie - I should have seen it! I usually do see it - but that was SO subliminal, it went right by me.!

      RS - oh yeah, tiny tells would really help there!

  11. Books that stun me, stay with me for a long time. I was stunned by We were liars by Lockhart, E.

  12. As always, this is so helpful, Laura! I especially like the reminder that readers are smarter than we give them credit for. In writing, I tend to over-explain, for fear the reader missed my point (or build-up to the gotcha moment). As a reader, I feel I usually see things coming, at least have an idea of it, so why do I assume every other reader doesn't?!
    Great examples too. And yes, The Haunting of Hill House, and others, leave their mark long after we're done reading.

    1. Hi Jill! Congrats on winning all those amazing books over at Girlfriends Book Club, although you may be cursing us for doubling your TBR pile!

      You're so right - the problem is, it's impossible to be objective about your own work (curses!) That's why we have critters, right?

      1. It was great, Laura! I won't need to go to the library for quite a while. 🙂

  13. This is very timely for me as my WIP has some backstory that my protagonist is in denial about and I am trying to decide at what point in the book to reveal it to the reader. Dealing with it will be a large part of the character arc so I haven't figured out exactly where to reveal, or how much to hint about it beforehand. It's tricky because I know if I guess too much ahead of time, it sours the read for me. Anyway, very thought-provoking post!

  14. Laura, I love this post. It speaks to the heart of not only a good mystery, but a good story that is not going for a HEA. Readers are not only smart, they have a preconceived notion of what they want before they begin reading by what genre they select.

    I have had such a problem with BS ... when and how much ... should or shouldn't. The learning process has taught me that less is best ... slowly in short reveals. A hard lesson, but one that helped me take the reader on a journey without a map and without them getting lost.

    I so look forward to the story of the two sisters ... a wonderful departure for you ... and I am certain ... a treat for us 🙂

  15. BS - perfect, Florence! If we'd all treat Backstory as BS, we'd use a lot less of it! Loved your blog today over at fOIs in the City, BTW!

  16. Great post Laura! I love this. Very few authors are able to surprise me. I can usually figure out the 'reveal' within the first two chapters of a book. However, Jaye Wells and Kimberly Belle both keep me guessing until the end! I needed this reminder. I have such a need to tell my reader what the story is, but the trick is to not, to let them figure out the story in their own way. We can create and control a story to a certain point, but it's when the reader brings their own perspective, their own background, their own history to the story to make the connection that the real magic happens.

    1. Oh Christina, I haven't read Jayne Wells (one more for the TBR pile) but I'm a HUGE Kimberly Belle fan! I'm lucky enough to be critting her next book - ohhhh, wait til you read this one! Awesomeness.

      You're right - everyone brings their own perspective - and I know, as a reader, that it is magic!

  17. Hey Laura,

    I love all the tips in this. I'm fascinated to read South of Broad and I look forward to reading your novel as well.
    I love tip toeing through a field of beautifully planted details, thoughts, tiny tells, secrets and lies. Its definitely amps up the anticipation as the plot unfolds for both the reader and the writer because YES, THEY ARE REAL! I am a very circular writer that sends my readers through twists and turns but then I always seem to answer all unknowns in the end. As a MG and YA writer, many young people have taught me they like closure. This is an article I will be printing and placing in the reference box. Good Job!

  18. I agree that two important ingredients for a surprise/shock ending are: (1) the protagonist doesn't know, and (2) the clues you've planted must be sufficiently subtle that the reader will have trouble figuring out the ending from them, but at the end will look back and think "so that's why that was there!" If you enjoy the surprise/shock ending, you may want to try my recent novel Why? A courtroom drama of self-discovery; several reviewers have noted their surprise with the ending. Looking forward to reading your new venture.

  19. Great post, Laura, as usual. I don't really write mysteries. The reader knows who the bad guy is. It's more about how he/she will get caught and how bad he/she will hurt the h/h before he's caught. When I started I wrote 3 chapters that were mostly backstory. Over time, I've been able to curb that. Or at least I now know I have to cut it. Just because I need it doesn't mean the reader does. LOL

  20. Terrific post, Laura. Very helpful to consider and work in to my next project. The movie that left me stunned and in awe, going back over every detail in my mind (so much so that I had to go see it again the next night to put all the pieces together) was The Usual Suspects. I did NOT see that one coming. 🙂

  21. Laura, I'm still struggling with rule #1 (since on of my gotcha moments, the protagonist is well aware of, but it doesn't come out until the last pages.) Is that ever a rule breaker? I thought I had a good example (author Mary Kubica's novel) but she set me straight-the protagonist isn't one of the narrators until the end so we aren't "in her head" throughout the whole story.
    Ugh, can you think of times where it has worked that the protagonist knows the twist throughout the story?

  22. Jill - unless she has amnesia, no. Imagine yourself in that situation . . . wouldn't you think about it? Not even once? Sure you would. And if you would think of it, so would your protagonist, and so the reader would know.

    But if you don't believe me - ask one of your critters.

    1. Drats! I know, I know. I was hoping for some "oh except for this instance, and this... and no, my MC doesn't have amnesia (wishes she did though!) Yes, I ran it by my CP's, but they haven't read the ending yet - although I pointed to your great post here as a good example for all of us!

  23. Thanks, Jill, and I'm sorry - I've been trying to think of a book I've read where this happened successfully. I can't think of one, and there's a reason, I think.

    Can anyone else think of one?

    1. Last night while running (I do my best thinking then), I think I found a solution where, although my protagonist knows this secret throughout the story, but never comes right out and says the secret, just alludes to it (which affects her daughter), it isn't until the end that her daughter finds out. We will see, I'll have to rework things, but I'm so thankful for your post, Laura, as it was a good point made that is pushing me to rework it! 🙂

  24. This was so timely for me; I've been struggling with how much to give of the trauma in my MC's past...which is different than what you're talking about, but that last point about trusting the reader to "get" it without being smacked in the head with it, definitely applies, as does "as little as possible." I'll be keeping this in mind as I finish drafting and, especially, as I move into editing phase.

  25. I love the way you approached this topic. Backstory is such a difficult aspect of writing to work with. The questions you asked on how the actual event the mystery surrounds affected your MC were really insightful. I love it when a story surprises me, but like you mentioned, rarely does one really stun me, and I completely agree that that's usually because too much has been given away earlier in the story. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and tips 🙂

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