by Shirley Jump
I once had a neighbor I barely knew show me her new boob job as I was walking by to get the mail. It was definitely more information than I wanted to have (and totally unsolicited), and coupled with some stories she told me the day we moved in, made me want to steer very, very, very far away from her and her husband. They invited us over dozens of times but I already knew way too much about them.
You’re probably wondering how on earth that relates to writing fiction. It’s all about the TMI. If you give a reader Too Much Information too early on (AKA Backstory), they lose all interest in the character. There’s no intrigue left.
What you want to do is Show that your Character has something to hide, but not Tell what that something is. This is part of the complicated dance between advancing the Plot but not dumping too much Backstory on the page. You want to tease the information just enough to get the reader to keep turning the page.
Think about it like meeting a new neighbor. Jane Doe moves in next door, so you do the neighborly thing and pop over with a batch of cookies to welcome her to the ’hood.
If Jane opens her door and starts saying, “Oh, thank you for the cookies. You have no idea how much I needed them. I’ve been stress eating like crazy ever since I high-tailed it out of Michigan. The cops there were just hounding me and hounding me. They think I had something to do with my husband disappearing but you know, that wasn’t me, it was his best friend, Earl, who had one too many on a deer hunting trip and aimed for my husband instead of the ten-point buck. But then there was the whole thing with my Aunt Mary and…”
First, you’re thinking, Who is this crazy person? And then, you start thinking, How can I politely get the heck out of here and never, ever speak to this person again?
Jane’s story was a whole lot of Telling and a whole lot of Backstory, which is like putting a stop sign in the middle of a paragraph. It bores the reader and creates an emotional disconnect.
Telling is dispassionate and flat. Showing, however, is connection. Showing delivers an emotional bond with the reader, the kind that makes them fall in love with your Characters, over and over again. Showing goes hand-in-hand with limiting Backstory so you can let details naturally unfurl.
Imagine popping over to give Jane some store-bought sugar cookies (because, frankly, who has time to bake?) and when she peeks through a slim opening in the door, you see that she has a black eye and she’s disheveled and barely talks above a whisper. She says something vague about leaving Michigan in a hurry and then shuts the door. That would intrigue you. That would make you interested. That would create a connection of curiosity and empathy between you and this perfect stranger.
Your Characters are perfect strangers to your reader. You need to build a quick emotional bond with words, and the best way to do that is to drop in bits and pieces of Backstory and Show your Character instead of Telling everything about them.
For a year or so, I did online dating (and yes, it was as awful as people say but I also met my Mr. Right, who became my husband there, so it’s not all bad). The profiles that got me to click “like” were the ones with just enough information to make me want to know more. The ones that had no information or worse, just said hook-up now, were the ones I didn’t even bother with. I needed to know something—but not everything—if that makes sense.
No one wants to date the guy who spends the first thirty minutes of a phone conversation talking about himself. He’s dumping Backstory that you don’t even care about yet, because you don’t care about him yet (also, he may be a narcissist, so raise a red flag).
Backstory in novels usually takes the form of long, long, long paragraphs of introspection. Reading those is like watching someone think. That has to be the most boring thing in the world—like watching paint dry on someone’s face.
The reader wants things to happen. The reader wants to feel compelled to turn the pages. And most of all, the reader really enjoys uncovering that mystery of what makes the Character tick. Use these tips to avoid dumping a steaming pile of Backstory into the beginning of your novel:
Remember Donkey in “Shrek”? He talks about how donkeys are like parfaits…with layers. Your Characters are like parfaits (or onions) too. They have layers to their personalities, their histories, etc. You want to peel those layers back a little a time, not expose the whole onion (or parfait) in the beginning of the book.
Don’t let your characters start rambling on about their personal life, either in their heads or in dialogue. Drop just enough into the story to make the reader wonder—and keep coming back so they can piece together more of the puzzle.
You’ve heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again—every word in your book, every Scene you choose, every line of Dialogue, every space you describe, must impact the Plot. You don’t need to talk about Jane’s phobia of dogs if there are zero dogs in your story. But if she has to work at an animal shelter, that dog phobia will be important information. Characters’ pasts do impact their present, so reveal only the details that impact them at that moment in the Plot (more on this in a second).
Chances are good that you are either writing your book in first or third person—either way, the reader is in your Characters’ heads throughout the story. Think of that as being in your own head. Do you sit there and think, “I should have been the middle child because then Mom would have loved me more and maybe Dad wouldn’t have run off with the maid. And I wouldn’t be working at this lousy job at McDonald’s.” Chances are you don’t. When you are in your Character’s head, limit their “me-me” thoughts to a minimum. You wouldn’t sit there and ruminate about yourself and your past, and neither would your Characters.
If you don’t read another paragraph in this article, that’s cool, because the only thing I really want you to learn about Backstory is that there has to be a trigger for it to be on the page.
You don’t tell the reader (or hint at) the Character’s childhood fear of dogs when they are about to get on a boat. The dogs have nothing to do with the boat (unless there’s a German Shepherd in the captain’s chair). Nor do you hint at or tell about the Character’s troubled past with her sister when the Character is about to enjoy an intimate moment with a love interest. It’s not the time or the place.
The Backstory info you choose to add to the book should be triggered by that moment and be an impact on that particular Scene. If you simply must drop that information in, add an item or setting that triggers their memory. In short: The Backstory has to have a purpose for being there.
The key to good Backstory is using it to increase Tension. If your Character is about to walk into a den of wolves, it might be a good time to have them recall the time they were attacked by a wolf hybrid. If the Character is about to kiss their love interest, that’s the time to introduce her fear of having her heart broken after her fiancé ran away with the fry cook at McDonald’s.
Along with that, you want to only add enough information to increase Tension. You want to look at how many paragraphs of Backstory you add, because Backstory is, essentially, the Plot’s boat just sitting in the water, circling, circling, circling. It’s not moving forward; it’s not speeding the reader’s pulse. It’s stagnant.
Think of a gunfight. When the Characters are shooting it out, bang, bang, bang, none of them are going to pause to think about the time they were caught stealing a root beer from the corner shop or the time their mother abandoned them to join the circus. This is a tense, fast-paced moment, and it needs to be treated as such. Later, when things calm down, is the time to add that bit of Backstory. But not too much—as long as there are guns out there, there is inherent Tension, and your Character should be feeling tense and aware, not drifting off into pages and pages of thoughts about the past.
Did you write too much? Have too many paragraphs in a row of it? Look at the balance of action and narrative. There’s a concept called white space in writing, which in short means how much white space do you see on the page? When a reader looks at pages and pages of dense verbiage, they close the book. It’s too much to concentrate on and absorb, especially in today’s hurry-up content world. Trim the Backstory and see how much faster and smoother the Scene runs. It’s like having too many shrubs in a garden—you miss the cooler parts of the landscaping if it’s overrun with greenery. It all becomes one big green blob.
I can hear your arguments already. But how will the reader get to know my Character if I don’t dump all that information in the beginning? How will they know that she’s a nice person? How will they know why he turned into a serial killer?
Actions speak a thousand times louder than words, so let your Character act instead of think. Acting scared around a puppy shows the reader a lot more than the Character standing against the wall thinking endlessly about her dog phobia. Showing a Character snooping around their brother’s house instead of having them think about how they don’t trust their brother is far more effective.
When you Show instead of Tell, you let the reader put the pieces together herself. And that intrigues her to read more, to figure out the entire story.
Remember this about Backstory: it needs to be relevant, impactful, and believable. If it fails that three-part test, then take it out. Work it into another place or leave it out altogether.
I don’t use all the Backstory I create for my Characters, just as no one person in anyone’s life knows their entire history, right down to their abject fear of the color taupe. Use the details that matter and let the rest go. The book will be better and stronger for it and the Backstory you do choose to put in will have lots more impact!
Which of theses techniques do you use, or will you try, to avoid oversharing your characters' backstory? Please share or ask questions down in the comments!
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Shirley Jump, author of Writing Compelling Fiction, is an award-winning, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Amazon, and USA Today bestselling author who has published more than 80 books in 24 countries. As the owner of JumpStart Creative Solutions, Shirley also does book building, content editing, ghostwriting, and author coaching. She has worked with celebrities from The Today Show, HGTV, White House advisors, and former NFL players to craft their stories in a unique and compelling way. She has spoken all over the world about the power of narrative and how to create compelling books. A former reporter and communications director for a marketing agency, she uses her diverse background to help clients create impactful content that opens up new revenue streams.
Shirley Jump, New York Times bestselling author and owner of JumpStart Creative Solutions. We do ghostwriting, book building, and strategic content creation. Feel free to reach out at: email@example.com, on LinkedIn, or book a meeting at www.Calendly.com/jumpstart-01.
Photo is by Arlene Toney at Captured by Arlene, BTW. CC BY-NC-ND
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So good. Shows, doesn't tell! And very colorfully. I will think of that oversharing new neighbor every time I introduce a character.
Thank you, Shirley.
ps My pet peeve is the character slowly combing her (color/length) hair in the mirror and telling the reader - at length - what she sees. Or maybe in the reflection of the train window while she muses on the reason for her journey.
Right? Who thinks about that (or in that way?). If I'm looking in the mirror, I'm annoyed by that one section of hair that curls the wrong way, thinking I need a trim, or debating whether to just give up and throw it in a messy bun 🙂
Glad you enjoyed the post!
Every one of us will at sometime put backstory in too early. I'm finishing what will be my 15th published book and realized I had one bit of backstory (told in dialogue in the 7th chapter) too early. I had to go back and pull it out, moving it to the 30th chapter. It happens, but it's fixable! Good post!
It is indeed! I still do it, and I'm on 80-odd books. I'm just as lazy as the next writer sometimes 🙂
Like many who've commented, the neighbor who overshares is a memorable idea and helpful for knowing when you've slipped into TMI. I allow myself to share too much backstory in the first draft, then cut it all out when editing. If the scene needs a bit of backstory, that gap will show and I can sprinkle pieces back in.
Great way to do that, Lynette! I work the opposite, usually, where I write bare bones and then add in as I revise. Everyone's process is different and so interesting!
This post is awesome, Shirley! I always have to edit out my oversharing. I'm breaking the habit, but I wish I just didn't do it in the first place!
I get that! I overshare too much in person usually, but not on the page so much, LOL.
Sometimes, I cut it out and use it appropriately in another part of the book if it moves the story forward.
Definitely a good practice! I almost always have a "cut from" file open beside my book file just in case I need to pull something over.
Brilliant Shirley, Just brilliant! I've heard this advice before, even taught this advice before, but never have I seen it so laid out in such vividly clear terms. Likening it to getting to know a neighbor was genius.
Loved this line: "What you want to do is Show that your Character has something to hide, but not Tell what that something is. This is part of the complicated dance between advancing the Plot but not dumping too much Backstory on the page."
That was my favorite line too, Kathleen. It is such a simple way to remember it...and brilliant. 🙂
Thank you both so much!
Yes, as illustrated by the new neighbor with the black eye who from behind her only half-open door mumbles something about having had to move cities in a hurry. Who can forget that?
Interesting article. Relates directly to a problem I’ve been trying to solve in my current WIP.
I have two characters, close cousins who grew up together, who have teamed up to seek a measure of revenge, but whose bad actions are pretty much hidden from other characters and the readers throughout most of the story. One is seen as an innocuous assistant to a ‘good’ character. The other pop’s up in scenes where her activities are clearly suspicious. However, within the narrative of the story, I leave the two completely disconnected from each other until the ‘big reveal’ at the climax.
I do use small bits of foreshadowing to hint at their connection and keep them near the “scenes of the crimes.” However, to let readers know they are ‘out there,’ hidden in the mix of the main narrative, I give each one an anonymous “stand alone” childhood flashback scene to establish their motivation, determination, and means toward revenge.
These two childhood traumas, technically, could be inserted almost anywhere in the story-so, have posed an ongoing dilemma to me. I plan slipping the first (for my innocuous villain) in as the prologue, although it will obviously have a completely different style and feel than the rest of the story. My hope is readers will see it, almost-but-not-quite forget it, and then readily discover its connection to the seemingly innocuous (but actually dangerous) villain at the right moment.
My feeling is that without these two scenes, which my critique groups both liked, I’d have to do much more traditional foreshadowing to establish their motives.
Still, any insights you can offer would be very welcomed. Thank you.
I try to think of a plot like a car on a road. Whenever you drop in backstory, it causes the car to pause. Whenever you do a flashback, the car turns around. If the reader is invested in the story and anxious to get from Point A to Point B, they can get easily frustrated by stops and starts and reversals, so try, whenever possible, to keep the action moving forward and use triggers to drop in bits of backstory. I'm not saying never have a flashback; just be conscious of where you are in the plot and how that will impact the flow of it.
Hope that helps!
Good advice. One of the characters in The Wolf Pack,book 1 of my Wolves of Vimar fantasy series, has a background of crime. He falls in love with a priestess, but feels he cannot admit his feelings as his background makes him unworthy of her. I let the reader know how he feels, but not the reason.
Sounds like that works!