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This week: Backstory KillsEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to keep the action going while inserting backstory, facts, and details.
Links to what agents and editors have to say about starting your novel/story with too much backstory:
What Agents Hate
Chapter One Pet Peeves
Link to an article about info-dumps and backstory:
Adding Backstory to a Novel Without an Info-Dump
What is Backstory?
Backstory is everything that happened in your main character’s life up until the “inciting incident” that starts your short story or novel.
The character’s childhood and life experiences.
Their relationship to others in the story.
Incidents that changed the world around the character.
The character’s job, activities, likes and dislikes.
How the character came to be in the setting.
You need to know it all. The reader doesn’t.
The reader only needs to know the most crucial facts that explain characterization, motivation, and the character’s relationships with others and his/her world.
The Enemy of Good Writing = The Info-Dump
The worst thing to put in your opening scenes (or anywhere, really) is an “Info-Dump.” An info-dump is a paragraph (or more) of pure information to explain the events leading up to your character’s actions, why he’s there, what he wants to do, or what the “rules” of the world are.
Let’s say your character, Jim, was a wealthy kid until a zombie apocalypse devastated his town. Now he has to fight off zombies but isn’t much good at guns and things, and his goal is to make it to his girlfriend’s house to see if she’s okay.
This is the info-dump style of putting all that backstory into the beginning:
Jim scrubbed grit from his eyes, stared at the zombie-packed parking lot and wondered how he’d gotten into this mess. It seemed like only yesterday he and his friends were cruising around town, trading snarky comments, and flirting with girls. Their biggest worry had been whether to meet for drinks at the yacht club, the beach, or just laze around the huge pool in his backyard. But then the meteor had hit and changed everything.
The newscasts had lots of scientific theories about where it had come from and what was happening to the people. Or they had until they went off the air one by one. Jim didn’t understand all that science crap anyway. That kind of stuff was for geeks and losers, and he’d managed to pass his classes without even cracking a book in high school. And anyway, he was all set to take over his dad’s car dealership business and no one needed an education for that. But now, he was trapped in the dealership’s office, hiding behind a window, watching ghastly, green-faced creatures amble around new cars none of them could drive anyway. The gun -- the one his father had always kept in the safe but never taught him how to use -- felt heavy in his hand. He’d grabbed a box of bullets, but he didn’t really know how to load them. He’d just jammed them into a pocket and hoped he wouldn’t be doing that much shooting. He’d rather be sneaky. He’d been sneaky all his life and it had worked out okay so far. Like the time his father had promised him a new car if he made the varsity football team. It had only taken a thousand dollars to the coach to accomplish that. Jim’s father had come to all the games and wondered why Jim was always on the bench. He’d made some excuses about pulling a tendon. And he’d gotten the car -- a shiny red Corvette. That car was sitting right outside and even redder now, covered with the blood and entrails of the zombies he’d run over getting there. It was almost out of gas, so he had to come up with a new plan.
The sun was setting, and he’d try to make his way to Anita’s soon. First, he had to get to his father’s SUV, parked at the side of the lot. Only there were a lot of zombies between the office and the car.
Are you asleep yet? What about if Jim continued to just sit there and think about his life, his girlfriend, and how his friends had been killed for another three or four paragraphs? Yup, I think you’d be nodding off faster than if you’d taken a sleeping pill, and that sure isn't what you want to accomplish with a zombie story!
Action = good
Too many inner thoughts = bad
Slipping Backstory into the Action
In order to keep the reader interested, you have to keep the action going and slide the backstory details -- only the most crucial ones -- into the story a few at a time. In the example of the info-dump above, there are details that aren’t really necessary, like how he and his friends spent their time before the zombie apocalypse or the football/Corvette story. There's nothing wrong with those details, but if you put them in at the beginning, the story comes to a grinding halt. Only if Jim’s in immediate danger are the readers going to pay attention, so keep him moving and work in the explanation later.
Here’s a version of the same scene -- but action! is highlighted and only the most important facts of the backstory are included:
Jim scrubbed grit from his eyes and stared out the office window at the zombie-packed parking lot. Shadows slunk across the dealership’s cars and the green-faced ghouls that prowled between them. The last ray of sunlight hit the tall sign with his father’s name, "Bob West’s Motors," making it glow against the sky almost as brightly as the meteor that had fallen to earth and started the whole zombie disaster.
Jim held his breath and eased the office door open. In a flash, he dashed outside, hunching low, and made it to the bumper of his Corvette. His beloved car’s shiny red color gleamed a monstrous scarlet now. Bloody zombie entrails covered it from hood to taillights. He’d plowed through crowds of them getting from his home to the car lot, but he'd had to get the gun from his father’s safe before he went to search for his girlfriend, Anita. The weapon was the only thing that could protect them from the fate that had killed all his friends and family.
A raspy moan raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He peeked around the end of the car. A zombie shambled in his direction. He ducked back, his hand shaking on the revolver’s grip. He wasn’t sure how many bullets were in it. A box of ammo was in his pocket. Too bad he didn’t know how to load them.
The creature lurched closer. Jim raised the gun. His heart thudded, but he didn’t pull the trigger yet. What if the shot killed this one but brought the rest of the monsters down on him?
With another hoarse moan, the zombie passed the end of the car -- and kept going.
Jim sagged against the bumper. It hadn’t seen him. The smell of roadkill wafted off the creature’s rotting flesh. Jim smothered a gag reflex and poked his head out again. Only a few zombies stood between him and his father’s SUV. His red Corvette was out of gas, and he prayed that his father’s car had a full tank. If he could get to it, he could get to Anita.
By making Jim move from his hiding place into the open, I’ve put him in danger. That’s what keeps the reader’s interest. At this point, I only included the few details that were most important, like a hint of how the problem started (the meteor), where Jim was and why he was there (the dealership, the gun), and what Jim wants to do (get across the lot to the SUV, and go find Anita). Those are the only things the reader must know at this point in the story.
As long as you balance action with creepy descriptions -- 'cause, come on, what's a horror story without creepy descriptions? -- then you can insert a few facts along the way while keeping your reader glued to the page.
Action will keep the reader’s attention, not backstory.
Although you’ve imagined a whole history for your character, don’t include it all. Only put in the most crucial information that your reader needs to know.
You don’t have to get rid of all the backstory. Just don’t stick it in as a big chunk (an info-dump). Keep some of it back and insert it later in the story.
It takes longer to weave the backstory into the actions, but it’s always better to show things not tell them.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
In honor of "Jim" and his zombie-apocalypse troubles, I've found some zombie stories for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Tick, tick, tick" Thank you!
(Comments listed in the order they were received.)
Vampyr14 writes: Love the example of the difference between surprise and suspense. I like to use both, but for different purposes.
Thanks! I'm pretty fond of suspense, surprise and a shocking reveal here and there.
Taniuska writes: Adding an element of 'time running out' for the main character really forces the story into overdrive, and is a perfect way to achieve tension. As always, great post, and very relevant for any horror writer:)
The clock-is-ticking element is so important, but there's not always an easy way to fit it into the story. It requires some real imagination. You do a great job on your stories!
Joy writes: Thanks for a great NL, LJPC. Its title was interesting, too. It reminded me of a Dean Koontz novel in which the words tick-tock were repeatedly used.
Also, the suspense list you put up can be used in most any genre or writing. Super!
I Dean Koontz! I remember the book you mentioned. In my NL's, I try to give tips that will help any writer. Thanks for noticing and commenting!
Barbie writes: Hi I really like your newsletters. The tips are so helpful, especially right now since I'm participating in 'The Daily Slice'. Thank you.
Thank you for replying, and good luck in The Daily Slice and all your writing endeavors!
BIG BAD WOLF is Feeling Lucky submits: "Triple Danger" and writes: Implied time will do the job. Especially when you order the Triple Danger.
Yeah, I guess the only thing scarier than Double Danger would be Triple Danger.
Ajay writes: i,thanks!very interesting & useful
You're welcome! Thanks for replying to the newsletter.
Phoenix writes: I absolutely agree about the importance of suspense in keeping readers going. I, for one, love getting my hands on books that keep me up all night to read "just one more chapter". Great newsletter, Laura!
Thanks so much for the comment! I also love suspenseful books with cliff-hangers at the chapter ends that make you turn the page.
decoluvj writes: I think that it is harder to create 'suspense' when you're writing from first-person and using past tense, because the reader's pretty sure that the character survives the story. How do you get around this obstacle?
It's not just the threat of death that keeps a reader glued to the page. The mc can be injured or caught, or the reader just wants to know how they're going to get out of a very nasty situation. Also, readers tend not to notice what tense something's in -- they end up getting sucked in by the story. I'm sure your first-person, past-tense stories are just as scary as present-tense ones. (Don't forget King and Koontz almost always write in past tense and their books are really scary!)
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