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.
You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy.
Lawson Writer’s Academy – November Classes
- Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More
- Potent Pitches and Brilliant Blurbs
- Author Power on Pinterest
- Killing it With Conflict
- Create Compelling Characters
- 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 – 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
by Fae Rowen
Today I'm sharing an emotional memory, a memory that I recalled while working on my WIP. For me, connecting with my past feelings can really open up my writing by connecting emotions with my characters.
I received my best Christmas present years ago.
My father went to Chicago on business the week before Christmas. He bought a fake-fur-lined hat that had ear flaps, along with a pair of gloves, and a heavy coat for the trip. It's the only business trip he ever took, and I was a devastated five-year-old Daddy's girl when he left the house in a taxi. I'd never seen a taxi before that night.
My mother had to have earned sainthood that week. All I did was ask how long until Daddy got home. I used to run out of the house when my dad drove in the driveway, home from work. He'd pick me up, ask what was for dinner, and carry me up the four stairs to the front door. Every day he was gone, I waited for him to drive up the driveway. My mother and I baked Christmas cookies for him. A lot of cookies, a batch everyday he was away. Amazing, I didn't eat any of them. I saved them all for him.
Finally THE DAY arrived. Because my mom didn't drive, friends took us to the airport to pick him up, so we didn't have to wait for a taxi to return him to us. I don't remember much about the airport, except my mom's hand squeezing my hand like hers was a vise. There were so many people hurrying, crying, laughing, and kissing that she was probably afraid I might get separated from her and lost. And there was a big Christmas tree with lots of wrapped presents under it. An attractive nuisance for a five-year-old who was there to meet her father.
Back then, the planes landed on the tarmac, workers rolled stairs up to the hatch, and the passengers exited down that long flight of steps. A rope held back those waiting outside for the travelers.
My mother's friends explained that my father would come out the door of that huge, tall plane, walk down the stairs, make his way across the red carpet to the outside of the building where everyone meeting their loved ones had gathered. Except, we weren't anywhere close to that carpet. We were behind all the others waiting for loved ones.
I watched each head duck through the door. Too many people left the plane. I was sure he wasn't going to come out. I almost started crying.
And then, I saw his dark hair duck under the door and he stood at the top of the stairs, scanning the crowd before he started down. I broke free from my mother's hand and ducked under the rope, dashing toward those stairs, yelling, "Daddy! Daddy!"
I don't remember pushing people aside, but I ran up the stairs and met him on the gangway. He laughed, picked me up and kissed me, then carried me to my mother, who stood waiting behind the rope, like the rule-follower she was.
Best present ever. I had my Daddy back.
Your turn! Tell us about your best memory—and how you could use it in your writing—in the comments!
You don’t know what you don’t know, right? That’s part of what makes writing in deep point of view so hard. I have spent years studying this technique and continue to learn more about it. But if you had a place to start maybe you could get started on your own.
But what if you had a checklist?
I’ve been teaching deep point of view for six years online, and my students have repeatedly requested this resource, so I thought I would first post it here with the good readers of WITS.
The basics of deep point of view is often where a lot of books and writers start and stop learning about deep point of view. Without these bits, the more advanced techniques are going to fall flat, but there’s so much more than these bits to build on to really make deep pov work for your story.
The power of deep point of view is creating a sense for readers that they’re IN the story AS IT’S HAPPENING with your characters. This isn’t a question of using past or present tense, instead write as though the action is happening in real time for readers.
Avoid Naming Emotions
Deep point of view takes telling more seriously than any other writing style, I’ve found. If you write an emotion word (to describe how your protagonist feels) that’s probably telling in deep point of view. Instead, show what that emotion feels like. Don’t tell me they’re happy, show readers what happy looks like to them. What happy feels like to them. Deep point of view is IMMEDIATE and PERSONAL.
If story is a car and your protagonist is the driver, deep point of view puts the reader in the driver’s lap. They want to see what the protagonist sees, feel the vibrations in the wheel, the pressure under the feet from the brake, the lurch as the car shifts gears—all of it AS IT’S HAPPENING.
Some words that raise red flags because they automatically create distance for readers include:
watched, saw, felt/feel, wished, heard, thought, made, caused, hoped, knew, wondered, wanted, believed, regarded, noticed, looked, smelled, realized, decided.
When these words are used to ‘tell’ the reader something you could ‘show’ them you force the reader into the theatre seat and out of the story.
We want to provide readers with an immersive fictive dream with Deep POV so using as many of the senses as possible is important (but maybe not all at once).
Choose one sense, the most prominent detail, to help bring an individual scene to life. The most prominent sense to show/provide insight into your character based on their fears, past experiences and associations, level of tension, etc.
Advanced Deep Point Of View Techniques
Subtext can happen in dialogue between two characters, between a character’s thoughts and their outward actions, in internal dialogue, and in the setting.
In deep point of view, we want to avoid using dialogue tags (he said, she said) because it builds distance and instead use beats, which is bits of action to attribute speech. Take this idea an extra step and strive to use beats but avoid stage directions. Make each beat move the story ahead in some way rather than just attribute speech.
Many literary devices give readers information about our characters, but it’s subtle. The reader will say what they know, but may not know why they know that detail. Look into devices like foreshadow, personification, pathetic fallacy, simile, metaphors, metonymy, etc.
This is tricky because it’s often confused with author voice. In deep point of view, you (the writer) are not telling the story the protagonist is. How would they describe things? What would they be sure to notice or overlook? Each character will tell the story using their own truth.
Emotional arc is another level of intensity for readers. How does the character change throughout the story? Think of a movie like The Greatest Showman. Hugh Jackman’s character starts out pushing against what seem like impossible odds, but when he gains the success he’s always dreamed of that changed him. In order to reach his personal goals, he had to change his priorities, goals, and personality. He didn’t just go back to the way he was before he was successful, there was an arc not a circle.
This goes along with the emotional arc. By using emotional layers, you learn to work backwards from the emotion you want portrayed to find the primary emotions fueling that behavior. This adds nuance and authenticity.
Many of these advanced techniques are evidenced in a character’s internal dialogue. There’s so much to learn here. I strive to learn one or two new things about internal dialogue with each manuscript. Each step forward helps you get closer to where you want to be.
Become a student of how people communicate. We say so many things to others with facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, gestures, etc. This really goes hand in hand with emotional layering.
Backstory should answer one question and leave the reader with two more. Keep it relevant to the scene at hand. Backstory is one of the advanced bits that bleeds into many of the others such as internal dialogue, character voice, and emotional arc.
With deep point of view, very likely your wordcount will increase. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing as long as every word you use moves the story ahead. It’s very easy to have a character catalogue the furniture in a room without any purpose to it, or recount the physical details of someone they meet when that description could be used to give readers insight into your protagonist.
Intimate Point Of View
Your protagonist can only share with readers what they know, see, hear, feel, taste, touch, assume, etc. If your protagonist doesn’t know something, the reader can’t either. This restriction means this writing technique will serve certain genres better than others. However, you don’t have to use deep point of view for your entire novel. You could use deep point of view to create a specific effect in key scenes to ratchet up the tension or create emotional punch for readers.
Gah! I’m out of space. Listen, I’m just skimming the surface here, but this is a list that will get you started. I am doing a free 5 Day Deep Point Of View Challenge on Facebook in October. It’ll be in a closed Facebook group. You can sign up for the waiting list here so you don’t miss out when I have all the details put together.
What aspect of writing in deep point of view do you struggle with the most?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.
Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers, at www.lisahallwilson.com.
I'm taking a break from first page critiques this month, because something is bugging me and I have to get it out.
Continue to send your pages, though, I'll be back next month with a crit!
I traveled to speak at a writer's group last weekend (I do that, you know. Contact me if you're interested). I was talking to a writer there, and she bemoaned the fact that she didn't have this down yet. She was still making mistakes. I've heard this many times. I'll bet you've said it to yourself, too (God knows, I have). So I thought a reminder of what 'writing' entails, might help you give yourself a break already!
First the science: (and thank you to Roger Manning for explaining this to me).
Higher-order thinking, known as higher order thinking skills (HOTS), is a concept of education reform based on learning taxonomies .The idea is that some types of learning require more cognitive processing than others, but also have more generalized benefits. You can read more about it HERE, but I think a chart is easier to understand:
Trust me, there are a lot more items in the lists, but I didn't want to bore you. But take a look at the items here - any look familiar? Yeah. Most of them are used in creative writing! YIKES!
"The reason typos get through isn't because we're stupid or careless, it's because what we're doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. "When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high level task," he said.
As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). "We don't catch every detail, we're not like computers or NSA databases," said Stafford. "Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning."
When we're reading other peoples' work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we're proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it's easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don't see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.
This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in "the" to "hte," or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article. In fact, I made both of these mistakes when I wrote this story. The first was a misspelling in a sentence that my editor had to read aloud for me before I saw it for myself. The second mistake was leaving out the entire preceding paragraph that explains why we miss our own typos."
You can read the whole article HERE.
See? We're trying to complete low level tasks and very high level tasks at the same time! Can you imagine how complex your brain is to be able to do that?
Then there's the mechanics:
Yes, we have way more tools than they did years ago (Thanks, Word, for telling me when I'm wrong-most of the time), but this is the nit-picky, in the mud, the blood and the beer editing that make my eye twitch. Even when we're careful, we tend to read what we meant to write, not what's on the page.
Suggestion: Have Word, or another program, read it back to you. You'll hear things you won't see: missing words, clunky sentences, change in tense, etc. OR, pay someone to do it. It's worth it to me not to have to go over that ms one more time (and you know I'm cheap).
Sentence structure, punctuation, adverbs, pronouns, dangling participles! There is SO much to know here, and finding out you're doing something wrong after your book is published is uber-embarrasing. Word can suggest, and Margie Lawson is the queen of rhetorical devices, but when it comes right down to it, you have to know this stuff to earn your chops as a writer. Personally, I'll never get Lay vs Lie (had a college professor try) and I'll admit to comma-drama.
GETTING THE STORY OUT OF YOUR HEAD, AND ON THE PAGE IN A COMPELLING WAY
It seems so easy when you're reading a good book, but anyone who's tried to write can tell you, it's like the Olympics; Those little girls make gymnastics look easy because they learned it right after walking, and then practiced for years.
The only thing that works here is sweat-equity. Sorry, but if I knew a faster way, I'd be using it. Keep writing - you'll get better.
This is probably the highest thinking of all. We all know a story needs a beginning, middle and an ending. Sounds simple. It isn't.
ALL THE REST
- Writing fresh
- What tense to use?
- What genre?
- Jump-off-the-page characters
- which POV to choose?
- Where to begin
And you wonder why you keep putting e after I? Why you mix tenses? Sheesh people, you're doing the equivalent of riding a unicycle and learning to swing a golf club, all at the same time!
It takes YEARS to master all of the above, and I haven't even mentioned voice! So give yourself a break. Give yourself time. Adopt a child's view of mistakes: they're just ways that didn't work.
Be gentle with yourself, people, keep going, and you'll get there. I guarantee it.
Do you scold yourself for mistakes? Friends who do? What's your worst offender?
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Like Laura's books/posts? There are two ways to get more! Sign up for her quarterly newsletter, or her Write Stuff short podcasts on the craft of writing, and have them delivered to your inbox. What's easier than that? Want her to come speak or teach online to your group? You can do that here. Oh and did she mention she has a December release?
Good stories are built around great characters. If readers don’t identify or sympathize with your protagonist, they’re not going to care enough to come on your character’s journey.
We writers generally have a picture in mind when it comes to the characters in our books. We know what our heroes and villains look and sound like. Height, build, hair, eyes, accents—it’s all etched inside our brains. As we write, we want the readers to see exactly what we see . . . or do we?
Les Edgerton stated, in an earlier post here at WITS, that giving too much description can actually keep the reader from investing in a character. His theory is that by giving only information essential to the story and letting the readers fill in the blanks with familiar images, the characters become more personal and recognizable.
What happens if we remove all character description?
We bring our own biases and perceptions into the characters we create, often pulling in elements of ourselves and people we know. I was curious to see what readers would do when my own vision was removed from the equation (to the extent that it’s possible), so I did an experiment.
To test my theory I wrote a short story, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins. I left out any physical descriptions or details that might influence how readers would picture the protagonist: gender, religion, physical attributes, ethnicity. I included only a vague idea of age. I kept the language gender-neutral as well.
The story was written in first person POV in a journal entry style, as we have a tendency not to describe ourselves physically in that format. That choice made leaving out those details feel more natural.
At the end of the story, I asked readers to close their eyes and without referring back to the text, picture the protagonist and describe that person to me. I wanted to know who they would see without my words guiding them to build the image.
Though a couple of readers came close to my own vision of the protagonist, no one described the character I’d seen when I wrote the story. Only one person mentioned noticing the lack of description, but indicated that it was not an issue for them.
An equal number of men and women took the time to respond to the question. All but one respondent pictured a male protagonist. To my surprise, the lone respondent who saw a female was a man. This might say more about societal expectations and bias rather than that of the individual readers.
What did the readers tell me?
Beyond the near unanimous agreement on gender, the descriptions covered a wide spectrum.
- People guessed the age of the musician as anywhere from mid 30s to late 50s.
- Body types varied from thin to chunky, but most everyone saw pale skin and dark hair with at least a tinge of gray.
- A couple of people admitted to seeing themselves, and a few even scoured the internet and provided images matching their vision.
Though I had only asked for a physical description, many people responded with emotional descriptions as well. Two readers even built a back-story for the protagonist. I don’t think I could ask for a closer reader connection than that.
What have I learned from this experience?
- My first take away is that sometimes less really is more. Trying to force my image of the character into the mind of the reader may push them away rather than bring them closer.
- Removing all description is extremely difficult, and not always practical. There may be certain physical details that are required for the story to work.
- The big lesson is to TRUST THE READER.I have a tendency to over-describe or over-explain because I fear people won’t get the idea. Believe me, they get it.
While the physical descriptions from the readers often differed from my own vision, the emotions described didn’t, and emotions are what our stories are all about.
This experiment had a profound effect on me as a writer.
Telling a story is about taking the reader on a journey, not just getting them to a destination. Never again will I attempt to spoon-feed the readers information. Instead, I’ll leave more to their imagination so they can fill in the blanks with familiar images. I want them to have a personal experience with the characters I’ve created. Building in too much detail can create a brick wall that blocks their view of the story.
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma and Catching Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room and Treble in Paradise: A tale of Sax and Violins (Treble is free on Amazon for the next few days).
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21 inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website: http://www.eldredbird.com/.