I confess. I’m in love with the way some authors slip in backstory.
I’m not talking chunks of backstory that sit on your page like cement blocks. The kind of blah blah blah that invites readers to skim.
I’m talking about little hits of backstory. Those smooth keep-your-story-moving backstory slip-ins.
What is backstory? It’s the events that led up to your story before the story opens.
Sometimes backstory is presented in a stagnant way. Flat. Boring. Readers lose interest and put the book down.
YIKES! You want to write a novel that’s unputdownable.
Managing backstory is tricky. Some writers think the reader needs all the history the writer created. Not true. The reader only needs what they need to buy the story.
Mark Sullivan (mystery/suspense/thriller writer) has a great plan for backstory management. Here’s his brilliant plan.
He suggests writing down what you think the reader needs to know. I recommend creating a bullet-point list.
Go through your backstory points and circle what the reader absolutely has to know. What they absolutely need to know.
Let go of things that you thought were important but don’t need to include. Just because you think it is interesting doesn’t mean the reader absolutely needs that information.
Take those points you circled, the ones the reader absolutely needs to know, and picture them etched on a sheet of glass.
Got that visual?
You’re imagining those points imprinted on glass.
Imagine carrying that sheet of glass to a brick patio. Imagine standing on a brick patio, holding that sheet of glass.
YOU KNOW WHAT’S COMING.
Watch it shatter.
Imagine picking up one narrow shard of glass at a time – and slipping each sliver of backstory in your first 100 pages.
You’ve got the first 100 pages of your book to fit in each sliver of backstory.
No blah blah blah. No info-dumps.
You’ll have a smooth fast-paced read.
Your story will have momentum.
Great visual. Great plan.
You may believe your genre or story or style need more backstory as set up.
You may be right. AND – I bet you can share the backstory in a compelling way.
Let’s dive into some examples. The first one is from Laura Drake’s upcoming release, The Last True Cowboy. It hits the shelves Dec. 4th.
Addiction sucks. I should know. Papaw has his White Lightning. Nana has her Bingo-jones. My addiction has sad green eyes and my name tattooed across his left pec.
But my wedding-dress dreams always come in second to his rodeo. There’s even a term for it. Rodeo Widow. Except to earn that title, I’d have to be married.
Deep Edit Analysis:
Laura Drake shared several hits of backstory, but she made those paragraphs compelling.
What does the reader learn?
- Papaw loves his White Lightning.
- Nana loves her Bingo.
- Our POV character loves her man.
- But her man loves his rodeo more than he wants to marry her.
- She’s unhappy about being unmarried.
Those hits of backstory share a big hint about the story promise too. What’s this story about? She wants to get married and he wants to keep rodeoing.
And all that was shared in a fun style with few words. Only 57 words.
I’ll share two more examples from The Last True Cowboy. From page 9:
At twenty-nine, my biological clock has stopped ticking—it’s tap-dancing on my ovaries. Every girl from my high school class is married and having babies, except me. Well, me and Rose Hart, but she wears men’s clothes and is taking hormones to grow a beard. She goes by Roy now.
At the bottom of page 9, right after Carly learns her best friend is pregnant again:
My biological clock bongs a funeral dirge.
Deep Edit Analysis: What backstory does the reader learn?
- The POV character’s age.
It’s tough to slip in the age of your POV character, and make it sound natural. Laura did.
Plus, she slipped in five humor hits:
- Bio clock is tap-dancing on ovaries.
2., 3., 4. Rose wears men’s clothes, takes hormones to grow a beard, goes by Roy now.
5. Bio clock bongs a funeral dirge.
Each point is an amplification. A funny or funny-sad amplification.
The last example from The Last True Cowboy may seem insignificant. Read, then we’ll analyze.
When Papaw turns into the town square, my lips and my heart rate slide up. The shadows hide the worn paint and empty stores. The high school kids have dressed the trees and the bandstand in white twinkle lights, changing the ambiance from neglect to magic.
Deep Edit Analysis:
The reader sees worn paint. Empty stores. Trees and bandstand covered in twinkling lights.
Where are the slip-ins?
-- my lips and my heart rate slide up -- She’s proud of her town, even though it’s not thriving.
Deep Editing and Immersion Grads know that’s a rhetorical device called zeugma. And they know how to use zeugma to add interest and power.
-- changing the ambiance from neglect to magic – This slip-in is close to a universal truth. Most of us know twinkling lights can make any place look magical. It’s smart to slip in universal truths.
Call it a childhood dream, making good on her vow. Call it redemption, making it up to Hope. Call it revenge, making them pay for Hope’s death.
Brilliant! Diana was strategic with style and structure.
Deep Edit Analysis:
Backstory Slip-Ins: Hope is dead. And our POV character made a vow to make them pay for Hope’s death.
Diana used the rhetorical device anaphora, triple or more beginnings, to slip that backstory in with style.
Look at all her power words and phrases: dream, making good, vow, redemption, making it up, Hope, revenge, making them pay, Hope’s death.
Two paragraphs from page 2:
Her earpiece clicked, and her brother’s voice came through. “Justice, youse…uh, you in position yet?”
Tony. He worked so hard to weed out his South Philly. She liked his accent. But being adopted into her big, crazy family had taught her people could have some weird issues.
Deep Edit Analysis:
The reader learns six hits of backstory:
- Her brother was adopted.
- He’s from south Philly.
- He’s trying hard to fit in.
- Her family is big.
- Her family is crazy.
- People can have weird issues.
And all those points were shared in one short cadence-driven paragraph.
Star-Crossed, Pintip Dunn, Immersion Grad, RITA Winner, released Oct. 2nd.
Two paragraphs from the middle of the first chapter:
Once upon a time, my sister and I played rocket ships together. She was the captain, and I was her best mate. We zoomed here to the planet Dion, hundreds of light-years from Earth, and pretended we were one of the original colonists who landed on this world seventy years ago.
Of course, that was before I surpassed my sister’s eating ranking. Before my father, the King, announced one of us would be his Successor. Before my mother passed away.
Brilliant writing. Pintip was strategic in capturing that backstory on the page.
Deep Edit Analysis:
First Paragraph – Shares close relationship between sisters and slips in backstory that they’re on planet Dion and shared some history of the planet too.
Second Paragraph – Uses anaphora, triple or more beginnings, to share that the sister’s relationship changed, that her father is the King, that she or her sister would take the throne, that her mother is dead.
The last example is also from Pintip Dunn’s Star-Crossed, from the middle of Chapter 3:
Carr’s never asked his mom to come home before. Not when he lost his job at the apple orchard, not when their holo-feed got turned off. Not even when the unit-lord threatened to evict them.
Deep Edit Analysis:
Another example of anaphora (triple beginnings). Pintip shared four backstory slip-ins in that smart paragraph. Easy to see those four points.
Such brilliant writing in all the examples.
The slip-ins all deepened characterization. They shared backstory in a compelling way. And they carried interest and power.
Kudos to Immersion grads Laura Drake, Diana Munoz Stewart, and Pintip Dunn. Their writing and their stories WOW me.
Hundreds of Immersion grads and Margie grads wow me with their writing too. Wish I could include examples from dozens of them. I’ll include more in every blog.
A big squishy-hugged THANK YOU to the oh-so-smart WITS gals for inviting me to guest blog.
BLOG GUESTS: Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!” and you’ll have two chances to be a winner.
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Lawson Writer’s Academy – November Classes
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P.S. – Check out my Immersion cruise for Cruising Writers, Dec. 2 – 9. Have fun in Montego Bay, Georgetown, and Cozumel. And learn how to add power to your WIP on the four days at sea.
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Margie Lawson —editor and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners.
She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.
To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2018, in Phoenix, Denver, San Jose area, Dallas, Yosemite, Orange County, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Coolangatta, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses through Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com