Tag Archives: backstory

Writing Fiction Made Easier: Get Out Of Backstory Hell

Writing Fiction Made Easier: Get Out Of Backstory Hell

I’ve just looked at this blog’s stats for the past 12 months, and this post on backstory (kill it) is by far the most popular post. I’m not surprised. When you’re writing fiction, backstory is a challenge for new authors.

To reiterate from that post:

Resist the Impulse to Explain

New writers start off great. They get the woman in the trunk of the car (or create some other hot action which starts things off.) Then they feel they need to explain who the woman is, and how she landed in the trunk of a car. They go on for pages and pages. RESIST! Please do not do this.

How to manage backstory: remove it when you’re editing

Important… Don’t worry about backstory in your first draft. Just write.

Remove ALL backstory when you’re editing.

You can add backstory into your novel/ novella/ short story, very carefully after your “slash and burn” editing fury. Restrain yourself. Only a sentence or two at a time. And only if you must add it for the story to make sense.

Here’s what a new author’s backstory hell looks like

I work with lots of writing students, so I may be more sensitive to backstory hell than most.

Here’s a common problem I see — messed-up scenes.

Not only does the new author cram backstory into a scene until the scene’s mangled beyond repair… he crams yet more backstory into the backstory.

Here’s what that looks like:

  • the scene starts. You settle down for an enjoyable scene between two characters, then the author inserts…
  • backstory 1, of one of the characters…
  • in the middle of backstory 1, you get backstory 2, the backstory of the other character…
  • Finally the author remembers he’s writing a scene. So you get a snippet of the scene (by this time the reader’s head is spinning like a top). After just a few paragraphs of the scene, the author inserts…
  • something or other, which may be backstory, or maybe it’s a flashback, who knows?

Sadly, readers have long-since stopped reading.

Forget backstory, PLEASE

Just kill it wherever you find it.

Keep your story moving forward.

Write in scenes, remembering that a scene happens in the present moment, just like a movie scene. There’s no room for backstory in a scene.

I blame advice like “write a character bio” for backstory hell. As I said in Kill Your Backstory:

If you’ve been happily creating character bios, and other junk, stop it. Who cares what flavor of ice cream your main character prefers?

The best way to create character bios is to do it while you’re writing. Yes, you need to remember that your main character’s eyes are brown, not blue, and that he lives with his Uncle Jake, who’s going out with Selma from the diner.

I copy and paste all this must-remember material into a single “characters” document in Scrivener. Then I open that document in Quick Ref while I’m writing the novel.

If you’ve been creating lengthy character bios before you start writing, STOP IT. Otherwise you’ll be tempted to insert all this junky material as backstory while you’re writing.

Step By Step To Fiction Which Sells: Plotting And Scene Magic

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Plot Hot-Selling Fiction The Easy Way

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Writing Fiction: 3 Tips To Make Your Story Real

Writing Fiction: 3 Tips To Make Your Story Real

You’re writing fiction — telling stories. You want your stories to be real to your readers. Let’s look at some ways in which you can do that.

An aside. In your first draft, it’s best to get your story written. If you tinker too much, you’ll lose your inspiration, and creative flow. Keep the following tips in mind for your second draft. At that stage, you’ve got your story down. Now’s the time to make it entertaining.

1. Who, what, why, when, and where — answer readers’ questions (slowly)

Ask yourself the 5Ws for each scene:

  • Who’s in the scene?
  • What are they doing?
  • When are they doing it?
  • Why are they in the scene (goals, motivation)?
  • Where’s the scene taking place?

In your first draft, you’re sketching your story. Later, fill in the 5Ws. Create a little checklist for yourself, so that you know what needs to go into each scene.

Be careful with the “why”. I’m not a fan of backstory. Keep your story moving forward. It some stage you’ll need to reveal your hero’s tortured soul so that readers can understand him. However, do it at the right time. Recently I read a thriller where the action stopped, so that the hero could tell his sidekick a story about his childhood. An action scene’s the wrong time for backstory.

Maintain your reader’s curiosity

Curiosity — suspense — keeps readers reading. So maintain that. Be chary about what what you reveal via the 5Ws. Don’t reveal too much too soon. New fiction writers explain too much; try to avoid that.

Read Elmore Leonard to see how to maintain readers’ curiosity by feeding in facts only as needed.

2. Draw a map: locate your characters in time and place

Setting is vital. I read a lot of commercial fiction. Few writers today do setting well. Their story could be taking place anywhere, at any time. You’re not a Victorian novelist, so limit your descriptions, but use sensory details: sight, sound, smell, so that you put your readers right into the middle of your scenes.

Draw a floor plan if many of your scenes take place in a character’s home. Draw a street plan of the town in which your action takes place.

Check Google Maps to see how long it would take your hero to drive across town. Recently I read a Regency novel set in 1803. The hero and heroine made the trip from London to Scotland in a few hours. Impossible in 1803.:

Scotland is about 320 miles from London. Even on the Great North Road, the main thoroughfare from London to Edinburgh, the trip, at the average carriage pace of about 5-7 miles an hour (we’ll assume 7), twelve hours a day, would take about four days.

You don’t need to worry about this kind of thing in your first draft. In later drafts however, checking the details is essential.

You’re entertaining your readers, and to do that, you need to do everything you can to make your story real to them. Every author makes mistakes; it’s inevitable. If you’re wondering about something: check — Google it at the very least.

3. Your characters’ dialogue: a lawyer talks like a lawyer

Your hero’s 38. He’s an industrialist. Your story’s set in 1900. How does he speak? You can have him speaking in any way you choose, but he can’t sound like his 5-year-old son. Or his 70-year-old father.

If your story’s a contemporary, your main character, a female surgeon, won’t speak the way her accountant does.

I’m always advising my students to read their stories aloud. It’s an easy way to check to see whether your characters sound right.

Again, checking and crafting dialogue is something you’ll do after you’ve written your first draft. It’s easier then, because you know who your characters are.

Imagine your story as a movie. Run it in your head. Then write down what your characters say. This is fun, and it’s an easy way to make your stories not only more enjoyable for you, but for your readers too.

So there you have it. Three tips to help you to make your stories real. Keep them in mind as you write your first draft. Use the tips in your second draft.

Write on… 🙂

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