Writers in the Storm

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October 5, 2018

The Brilliance of Backstory Slip-Ins

by Margie Lawson

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.


Drop it.

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.

The Last True Cowboy, Laura Drake, 2-time Immersion Grad, Cruising Writers Grad, RITA Winner

The first two paragraphs of Chapter One:

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.

Brilliant opening!

Deep Edit Analysis:

Laura Drake shared several hits of backstory, but she made those paragraphs compelling.

What does the reader learn?

  1. Papaw loves his White Lightning.
  2. Nana loves her Bingo.
  3. Our POV character loves her man.
  4. But her man loves his rodeo more than he wants to marry her.
  5. 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?

  1. 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:

  1. 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.

I Am Justice, Diana Munoz Stewart, 2-time Immersion Grad

From Page 1:

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:

  1. Her brother was adopted.
  2. He’s from south Philly.
  3. He’s trying hard to fit in.
  4. Her family is big.
  5. Her family is crazy.
  6. 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.

You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy.

Lawson Writer’s Academy – November Classes

  1. Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More
  2. Potent Pitches and Brilliant Blurbs 
  3. Author Power on Pinterest
  4. Killing it With Conflict
  5. Create Compelling Characters 
  6. Disasters & Doctors: Writing Thrillers and Danger

I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS Sunday night, at 9PM, and post them in the comments section.

Like this blog? Please give it a social media boost. Thank you.

P.S. – Check out my Immersion cruise for Cruising Writers, Dec. 2 – 9Have fun in Montego Bay, Georgetown, and Cozumel. And learn how to add power to your WIP on the four days at sea.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Margie

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

109 comments on “The Brilliance of Backstory Slip-Ins”

  1. Hi Margie. Your teaching has given me a whole new way of seeing. I love that you give examples to cement it. And a squishy hug to pack it in nice and tight for us. Thank you. ❤️
    ps I haven’t had a message from you re the lecture packet I won from your last WITS post on allusion. (I’ll be looking to download that next week.) x J

    1. Hugs to Jay!

      In one month, you'll be an Immersion grad! Can't wait to give you a squishy hug in Coolangatta!

      I emailed you from California. I'll resend. You'll have that lecture packet soon!

    2. Hi Margie - Just retured from a writers' retreat in France with Shelley Adina and Nancy Warren. I took my WIP and the notebook you gave us during our Immersion in the spring. It's my Go To for every time mmanuscript sags. Thanks so much.

      1. Hugs to Immersion-Grad Linda McGinnis --

        You and Shelley Adina and Nancy Warren -- Three Immersion Grads in France together. I can imagine the fun you three had!

        Love that you took your Immersion handout folder to France. So smart. Bet your writing carries deep editing power.

    3. Thank you Margie! I love the examples you pick. They make it much easier to not only understand but to see way to improve m own writing 🙂

      1. Hello Emily --

        Examples, analyzed, make it easy to see how to use these techniques.

        All my courses are loaded with examples, analyzed.

        I bet that analogy, and the visual, stay in your mind.

    4. Hi Margie! This is an amazing blog post filled with such great advice! Thank you SO MUCH for including STAR-CROSSED in your examples. I am absolutely honored!

      1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Pintip Dunn --

        Your books are always loaded with stellar examples of deep editing. Every page.

        Thanks for dropping by the blog!

      1. Hugs to Multi-Immersion Grad Diana Munoz Stewart --

        So proud of your stories and your writing. You WOWED me with Book 1. Can't wait to read Book 2!

    5. Hi Margie! Great examples! I love Laura and Pintip. I'm not familiar with Diana Munoz Stewart's books, but those are great excerpts. Thanks for sharing! Hugs!!

      1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Carrie Padgett --

        The Immersion class you hosted in Yosemite National Park was beyond fabulous. Thank you again for making it so special.

        And thanks for dropping by the blog -- and commenting!

    6. Fascinating post, Margie! And the image of the broken pane of glass is perfect as are the examples. I never really thought about backstory like this before and I am eager to check my current WIP !! Thank you!

    7. Hi Margie! Loved the examples and found a couple of books to read on my next long trip! Linda D.

      1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Linda Dindzans --

        It's been waaaaay too long since we've connected! How about another cruise? An Immersion Cruise? Dec. 2 - 9? Another Immersion class, 2019?

        It would great to work with you again any time!

        Thanks for dropping by the blog.

      1. Hugs to Multi-Immersion Grad Tammy E --

        So glad you got to meet Laura Drake. She is always kind -- and impressive -- and smart, smart, smart. Like you.

        Wish I could have been there and seen you too!

        Thanks so much for posting here!

    8. I remember the broken shards of glass analogy from one of your class lectures. Love that comparison. Backstory is an art form for sure!

      1. Hello Carla C --

        Backstory is a form of art that can be learned. So many ways to deep edit and make backstory carry interest and power.

        Thanks sooooo much for posting!

  2. I took a workshop from James Scott Bell, and he had some interesting comments about back story. He suggested we try this exercise: In first 2500 words of your ms, you can have 3 sentences of back story. They can be all together or spread throughout. In the next 2500 words, you can have 3 paragraphs, again placement is up to you.
    My questions to myself as I write: Does the READER need to know this? Does the reader need to know this NOW?
    Usually, the answers are "no."

    1. Hello Terry -

      James Scott Bell is beyond brilliant! Always. And he's fun too!

      I always teach my students to ask themselves if the reader absolutely needs to know that hit of backstory now. Great minds... 🙂

      And if the reader absolutely needs to know it then, give it to them in a compelling way. No invitations to skim.

      Thanks so much for posting!

    1. Hello DLW --

      Thanks for letting me know you're learning, learning, learning!

      I believe you've taken some of my online courses. But I could be wrong.

      If you have, you know my lectures are loaded with hundreds of deep editing learning opps!

  3. See you your big squishy hug, and upping you a sloppy kiss, Margie. Thanks for spotlighting TLTC! Can't wait to see you next week for the Permian Basin Writers Workshop! I've told everyone here they are in for a huge treat in a little package!

    1. Hugs to my Laura Drake!

      You did know you're mine. Right?

      Easy to spotlight THE LAST TRUE COWBOY, my ARC has loads of sticky tabs that mark NYTs! I'll bring the book with me when I see you next week for the Permian Basin Conference!

      Can't wait to give you that squishy hug!

  4. Thanks, Margie, for another brilliant lesson tied with the ribbons and bows of great examples! Love the glass shard visual.

    1. Hugs to Multi-Immersion Grad Fae -

      Ribbons and bows. You themed your comment to your hands-on-crafts world. Fun!

      And -- so fabulous working with you in Immersion in July. Miss you!

  5. Margie, your DE&RD&M class is the greatest! Every time I use one of the devices, I smile. Slipping in backstory is a challenge I accept in every sentence I write.

    1. Hello M. Lee Scott --

      Love the style and structure and cadence boosts we get when we use rhetorical devices. And you know my DEEP EDITING course is loaded with 25+ rhetorical devices -- and how to use all that cool power.

      Thanks for posting!

  6. Hi Margie! Thanks for the reminder about creating a bullet-point list. I'm making some behind-the- scenes backstory changes and I need to track when and whether I've shared the new info with the reader. This will help.

    1. Hugs to Immersion-Grad Julie F --

      You know I'm a big fan of lists. A smart way to track which backstory hits you've covered.

      So glad I got to work with you in Immersion!

  7. Thankfully, I just got a big squishy Margie hug during my Mighty Mouseketeers Immersion class. This post is a good reminder of how to do it right. These examples rock.

  8. Hi, Margie. Love the ideas expressed. Just in the nick of time for a draft I am, ahem, reconstructing.

  9. p.s. Margie, I just noticed there are some comments hiding inside of comments. It's our new template. We're still adjusting the settings so sometimes the comments aren't as straighforward as we'd like.

  10. Margie! Always great advice. I've always believed that backstory is linked to motivation. Love your examples.

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Christie Craig --

      Yes -- Linking backstory to motivation and sharing it in a compelling way is smart, smart, smart.

      Just how you do it, because you're a smart, smart, smart writer!

  11. As always, another great post from Writers in the Storm blog! I learned so much from Margie at our WFWA retreat a couple of years ago and this is a wonderful post with perfect examples. Thank you!

    1. Hello Jill --

      I loved presenting for WFWA. Such an amazing group of driven-to-excel writers. And they're the most supportive group too.

      Thanks so much for chiming in!

    1. Hello Dani --

      Glad my blog hit at the right time for you.

      If you haven't checked out my lecture packets, or online courses, I hope you do. Dozens of deep editing gems in every course. Don't miss out!

    1. Hello D Holcomb --

      I'm happy to share this little lesson. MILLIONS MORE TEACHING POINTS in my online courses and lecture packets.

      Okay. That may be hyperbole. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the blog.

    1. Hugs to 2-time Immersion Grad Diana Munoz Stewart --

      Love your deep edited writing! Can't wait to read your next release. I think it comes out early next year.

  12. Hi Margie,

    I struggle with backstory, and your examples are brilliant. Clear, concise and easy to follow. I very much enjoyed doing your on-line courses of deep editing, characters etc. I have found them an enormous help.

  13. Hi Margie. Great examples. I had friends attend your OC master class, and I have been quietly stalking your site. Do you have a lecture packet you recommend to be the first place to start in the Academy? Maybe the body language or the empowering characters?

    1. Luna! Great to see you here at WITS. 🙂

      It's just my 2 cents, but I'd start with the EDITS system. It's the thing that will help you break down your books to understand where you're weakest. (For me, that's body language and dialogue cues.) I felt like the EDITS system naturally led me to the next course. Then I took the other required class so I could go to Immersion, which is heaven for any writer that wants to improve.

    2. Hello Shirley Wine --

      Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      Teaching points with lots of targeted examples and clear analyses. That's my goal. Every lecture.

      Thanks for sharing kudos!

    3. Luna --

      Thanks for asking about which course or lecture packet to hit first.

      I recommend taking ECE or Deep Editing first. Either one can be taken first.

      1. Empowering Characters' Emotions (ECE)
      2. Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More
      3. Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist

      The EDITS System is covered in ECE.

      Deep Editing will be taught in November.

      The lectures from those three online courses are also offered in lecture packets. The online courses are only offered twice a year. But the lecture packets are always available 24/7 from my website.

  14. Hi Margie,
    Always enjoy reading your posts.
    And I’m looking forward to reading Laura Drake’s new novel - those snippets are brilliant.
    Can’t wait to give you a hug in person sometime soon Margie, 2017 didn’t work out but I’m sure 2018 will.

  15. […] by Margie Lawson 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 […] Source link […]

    1. Hugs to Mulit-Immersion-Grad Julie Glover!

      Yay! You pre-ordered THE LAST TRUE COWBOY! Clear some time on your calendar on Dec. 4th - so you can read it straight through. You'll love the story and the writing. Have your sticky tabs handy for the hundreds of NYTs!

  16. I always love your examples, but the shards of glass metaphor is genius. Thanks for that.

    1. Andrea --

      Your writing is so deep-edit strong. I can tell you honor your shards-of-glass backstory hits. They're slipped in and beautifully written.

      Can't wait until Immersion at your house. I've been checking the weather in Coolangatta. Niiiiiice! A lot warmer than our freezing temperatures tonight. But it was warm on the top of the mountain until today. I still have daisies and petunias in bloom -- likely to be buried under a few inches of snow by morning.

  17. Wow - fabulous examples of how to slip in back-story. I'm in awe!! It's good to have something to aspire to. Thank you for sharing these, Margie. Your classes have taught me pretty much everything I know about writing--and I'm still learning. Love your work!! And Laura, Pintip and Diana - just wow!!

  18. Hi Margie! Your information is always so helpful - and the backstory hints come at a perfect time for me. Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. Again, another fabulous lesson. I've been wanting to read this since Friday LOL, but I haven't had time until today. It was worth it to read all of the great examples you posted. Thanks, Margie!

    1. Hello Maggie B --

      Glad you found the time to read the blog. Yay -- you loved the examples. Me too!

      I think you've taken some of my online courses. Or -- I must have just seen your name lots of times here on WITS.

      If you haven't taken my courses or done the lecture packets, please consider them. You'd learn sooooo much -- and make your writing deep editing strong.

      If you're a Margie Grad, disregard all but the first paragraph. 🙂

    2. Hello Sandra --

      I absolutely loved presenting the full day workshop for Yosemite Writers. It's been three years? Hmm... Time to invite me back again. And -- I could teach an Immersion class there too. 🙂

      Kudos on your seven published books!

      Hope I get to work with you in an Immersion class sometime.

  20. Hello Margie: Would love to be able to immerse myself in your classes. Our Yoseimite Writers groiup had you as a host three years ago. Learned to much. Have seven published books now. A lot of thanks to you.

  21. What course would you recommend when I have been told I do not include enough description. I'm often told I have a strong plot, dialogue is Ok to good (I'm learning) but what lacks is always the description of the place, the setting, the characters, etc. Thanks for any ideas.

    1. Lisa, in case Margie doesn't make it back...I'd recommend the edits system. When you do it, you'll be able to see for yourself where you need more 'green' (you'll get that after the class/packet).

      1. Thank you. I bought the packet a couple of years ago and was a bit overwhelmed. I should take a look at it again. It might make more sense now. I've learned a lot in the last couple of years. Thank you.

    2. Hello LIsa A --

      Laura channeled me perfectly. Empowering Characters' Emotions -- just what I would have recommended. It includes the EDITS System. You'd learn where to slip in setting and character description -- and a whole lot more!

  22. Hey Margie and all the lovelies at WITS! I always hop over here when I need some help, today it’s help with backstory, and you guys deliver every time! Thanks so much for the great examples!

    Chat soon,


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