Posted on July 23, 2012
Last week I blogged about scattering smidgens of backstory throughout a story. I received an email from a reader who wanted further explanation about what backstory is. Not being a writer, she’d never heard the term.
I love it when that happens, and I can pontificate.
The simple answer: Like reunions where we connect with our past and our present, backstory connects the story world and our character’s past.
Writers understand what I mean. Readers still might need more explaining.
According to David Morrell, NYT bestselling author of high action thrillers, all stories have two parts: backstory and front story.
Front story covers the scenes on the page that are happening in the present and pressing forward.
Backstory reflects the influences from the past, and a character’s past is the key to creating a story where motivation and stakes are credible.
NOTE to any aspiring writers: You should have Morrell’s The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing on your craft bookshelf. Check it out here.
Now back to my explanation…
Backstory is made up of all the data of a character’s history. How he became who he is, and why he acts as he does and thinks as he thinks. It also reveals influences of an era, family history, and world events (such as wars) that affect the story and its inhabitants.
Factors writers consider as they create characters include:
- Major childhood influences, traumas, events, and emotional wounds
- Family birth order
- Era and/or historical period/events that influenced him
- Significant people in a character’s circle. If dead, how did he relate?
USA bestselling author Pat Kay teaches that once a writer defines those factors, the next step in character development is to ask questions like theseto dig deeper.
- Who was the most significant person in his childhood?
- Which past relationship most influenced him?
- How did his last relationship end?
- Is his occupation what his parents or family hoped he would pursue?
- What happened in his past that will affect the plot?
- What regrets does a character have?
- What is his worst fear?
- What is the darkest secret or shame from his past?
- Which events from the past still influence him?
- What emotions will a character feel/display/hide when under pressure?
- What is a character’s central strength?
- What does a character want to change about himself?
- What are a character’s long-range goals?
- What one thing will a character NOT do?
I could go on and on with questions to ask about a character, but you get the picture. If you look at yourself and others in your family and think of their background, you will see that everyone is influenced by past experiences and way of life.
Same is true of a story character. Writers employ various techniques to know their characters deeply. The more fully developed a character’s past the more three-dimensional characters appear on the page.
Make sense, readers?
Writers, what techniques do you use to fashion your story’s characters?
Posted on July 16, 2012
Sitting at a table at my high school reunion recently, this thought struck me: “This is how backstory should work.”
Huh, you say. Let me explain.
I’ve know most of the people at my high school reunion more than half my life. I didn’t have to ask mundane questions to get to know them. When I looked in their faces, I saw not the wrinkles but teenagers I remembered from our school days.
We were (are) a close knit group, attending English class or studying for Algebra or cheering our Austin High School Maroon football team. We laughed about our Red Jacket (the drill team) adventures, relived football losses, groaned over teachers and relived our glory days on the yearbook and newspaper staff as reminisced.
I knew their past.
But what dawned on me was that what I remembered from those good ole days is only a small portion of their story. As we shared over the three day reunion, I learned of their triumphs, their heartaches, their success since we’d last been together.
Did I learn everything at once? No. Piece by piece they shared stories. Backstory came to light that had shaped who they were today.
Like all my high school friends, I know my characters. After all, I am creating them.
And like my friends who told their stories over the time we were together, that’s how I must reveal my character’s background–slowly as it relates to the story and character development.
This is where new writers often err in their opening scenes, revealing anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.
There are times when a bit of backstory is necessary for the reader to grasp what’s going on and why it’s important. But, editors and agents agree a newly submitted manuscript with backstory dump in the beginning scenes is the biggest kiss of death for the work.
Writers, whether new or seasoned, must tread carefully when considering how much backstory to include. We should trust the reader’s intelligence to “get” what’s going on without providing lengthy backstory.
Think about it. Is it really necessary for the reader to know Mary has been married three times, each relationship ending badly, to “understand” why she’s looking for a good relationship. Usually, that kind of backstory, while indeed important, should be doled out later in the story and bit by bit.
A general rule is keep backstory either absent from the opening or only include as much as is absolutely necessary to set the scene for the inciting incident.
To quote Donald Maass, “no backstory in the first fifty pages.” And then, only to do one or more of these things:
1. Raise the stakes
2. Reveal motivations
3. Express innermost fears
4. Reveal obstacles
Easier said than done for most writers, including me.
I think of backstory as “BS.” Literally. I ask myself does the reader really need to know this in order to relate to my character? The answer is usually no!
Another way to think of backstory is as carefully placed clues to the mystery of the character and why they are the way they are. Hints to keep the reader turning the page.
Just as I discovered my old friends’ stories gradually, we writers need to let readers find backstory clues throughout the book until they’re brought all together to explain how and why the character changed or clarify whatever the character did.
What do you think about backstory dumps in the opening pages? Do you close the book or keep on reading?
Posted on July 2, 2012
One day I’m writing a blog post and it’s May. Suddenly it’s July 1st.
Where’d June go?
Life was too busy to even notice, but I can tell you there was a whole lot of moving going on. We helped our son and his family pack their home and move to Illinois. Then we packed and moved ourselves to Colorado for the summer and fall.
Did you notice the new porch on the blog banner?
Then the boys went to their new home and wildfires erupted throughout Colorado.
We watched via local news as acres and acres of forest burned and hundreds of homes were destroyed. And wept for the people and the animals. Today those families are returning to what’s left of their homes.
The fires are still sad and scary, but thanks to some outstanding firefighters the big Waldo Canyon fire is under control. We’re praying the others will be controlled soon too.
Though we’re safe from forest wildfires for now – the nearest is 50 miles away over the Continental Divide, we’ve had some drama here on the front porch…
Three days ago a couple of summer folk here for the 4th of July stopped by the porch to ask if we had seen their two white Pekingese dogs. The dogs had gotten out of the cabin they rented. The owners couldn’t find them.
We’d only seen them walking with their owners the day before.
My heart broke for the owners and the dogs. I couldn’t imagine losing my four legged babies. Plus, there’s lions, tigers and bears in woods, you know.
We watched for the little white fur balls, but never saw them and feared they were gone forever.
Then today, as we sat on the porch, two kids stopped and asked if we were missing our dogs. Buster and Toby bounded to the fence to greet the kids so they knew we hadn’t.
They said two white dogs had come down off the mountain from the woods behind their grandmother’s place and they were keeping them until they could find the owners.
My dh and I looked at one another. The dogs had to belong to the couple. We lent the kids two leashes and told them where to find the couple. We didn’t know the cabin or house number, only the street.
Those two Good Samaritan kids went door to door with the little dogs until they found the owners. When the young tween returned the leashes, I told her I would write about the good deed she and her brother had done.
I don’t think she believed me. But what better way to get back on the blogging track than with a happy ending story. I love happy endings.
What about you? Have you had any happy endings lately?
Posted on May 29, 2012
How cool to check the blogs I follow yesterday and discover that Elaine Smothers blogger extraordinaire had nominated me for the Versatile Blogger awardI’m so excited to accept the nomination. Thanks, Elaine.
As with most blog awards, acceptance comes with certain rules found on the VBA blog along with the snappy looking logo download.
Having been awarded the Versatile Blogger award, I must now:
• Thank the person who gave you this award. I’ve already thanked Elaine, but I don’t think a second thanks fine. Thanks, Elaine.
• Include a link to their blog. That’s an easy rule to follow and a pleasure to do because Elaine and Forrester share versatile and fun blog posts. Check them out for yourself here.
• Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly and nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award. This rule was a bit more difficult to follow because I’m not sure who’s already been nominated. Here’s my list and bloggers, if you’ve already been nominated congratulations!
1. Margaret Miller
2. Kat Jorgensen
3. Jane Carver
4. Patricia Caviglia
5. Barbara Forte Abate
6. A.E. Huppert
7. Patricia Sands
8. Donald Bueltmann
9. Ciara Gold
10. J.D. Faver
11. Melissa Ohnoutka
12. Emmie Mears
13. Suzan Hardin
14. Jennifer Bray-Weber
15. Pat Thunstrom
• Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself. Okay, Elaine and Forrester get ready. Here are some quick things you might not know.
1. I play the piano. Not well. I like to say I have the skill, but not the talent.
3. I used to paint. Still life and tole painting were my styles of choice. Now I paint walls, but only when I can’t hire someone else.
4. I drive slow when going through Missouri. Once got a speeding ticket when “trapped” by a radar tracking helicopter there. I don’t think my Texas license plate with the vanity trim holder that reads, “Get in, sit down, and hold on,” helped my plea of innocence.
6. The dogs and I walk no matter what the weather. That’s Toby’s adopted brother Buster walking with us. (He’s a ten pound Maltese.) They’re wearing matching red coats.
7. Much to my surprise, I enjoy blogging and tweeting. Thanks, Kristen Lamb for convincing me. I’m proud of my WANA tribe badge.
Okay now, blog readers, did you learn anything shocking from my reveals to Elaine and Forrest?
Posted on May 26, 2012
This Memorial Day weekend along with the hot dogs, hamburgers and swimming, I want to honor and remember those who have gone before with this video of TAPS being played by a ninety-two year old vet. A heartfelt thank you to those who have lost loved ones serving our country. I’m sincerely grateful to all of you.
“There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.” Quote from an article by Master Sergeant Jari A Villanueva, USAF
Words to Taps
Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
God is nigh.
Go to sleep,
May the soldier
On the land
or the deep,
Safe in sleep.
Love, good night,
Must thou go,
When the day,
And the night
Need thee so?
All is well.
To their rest.
Fades the light;
And the stars
Fare thee well;
Day has gone,
Night is on.
Thanks and praise,
For our days,
‘Neath the sun,
Neath the stars,
‘Neath the sky,
As we go,
This we know,
God is nigh.
Note: there are no “official” words to Taps. These are the most popular. More about the history of Taps can be found at the official Military Funeral Honors History of Taps page and 24 Notes That Tap Deep Emotions
Our Memorial Day celebrations would not be complete without a big thank you and honor to all of those who serve every day and their families.
SOURCE for graphic: Magickal Graphics
Posted on May 21, 2012
Letter posts are an interesting and intriguing way for bloggers to learn more about each other. They’re also entertaining.
Recently, travel blogger and WANA alum Tami Clayton shared her list of 10 things she loved that began with the letter “A.” Her post was fascinating. Her word choices and the accompanying pictures and graphics wonderful. I left a comment telling her so. She gifted with me with a letter to share about myself. Introducing…
It’s Monday. It’s May. I’ve already done a post about the whole month. But couldn’t resist choose MOTHER’S DAY for my word list. Here’s a picture of the clan minus two granddaughters who gathered to celebrate.
I write as Judythe MORGAN. It’s a pseudonym combining my first name and my husband’s middle name. My latest novel, THE PENDANT’S PROMISE, is available. Click here to read more about Lily and Alex’s love story or buy a copy with a click Kindle or Nook
MAD MEN As a writer I find this TV series fascinating. I thought it too edgy at first, but now I’m so hooked. I even read the blog for inside info. The script writing is excellent. Don Draper makes an intriguing main character. Not a particularly likeable hero, leading a double life and yet still flourishing. The show represents well the era.
The first published cartoon featuring the modern mascot was in the September 20, 1957 Austin Maroon Newspaper, where the Mascot (about 1.3 meters tall and hairy) is attacking the football mascot of one foe or another. Mr. Maroo doesn’t speak – you have to look him in the eye to see if he’s your friend or your foe. And he wears the beanie because beanies at one time were the traditional headwear for a freshman. Since Maroo never goes to class, he’s still a freshman, more than 50 years later.
I’m including Mr. Maroon for MARYBuckham. Her recent BREAK INTO FICTION workshop in my hometown of Austin coincided with my high school reunion. We met and I shared about the school’s history. I think she’s still laughing over our school sport teams being Maroons.
Btw, if you’re a writer and you don’t have a copy of her book BREAK INTO FICTION you should get one. Plotter, or not, the templates in this book will help you nail down your story. Click here to order.
MAJOLICA is any earthenware with an opaque glaze of tin oxide. I collect pitchers and love the majolica glaze. The colors are vivid and the designs have intricate details. All of these pitchers are examples of 19th century Majolica.
M&M This was the very first M word that popped into my head. I count the little chocolate candies as a major dietary component. M&Ms first appeared in 1941 as a treat for the G.I. Before my time, but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share since my birth. We keep my dispenser on the kitchen counter. I count walking downstairs as exercise that entitles me to an extra handful. As you can see g-kids were here over the weekend and the dispenser is empty!
MUSE No writer’s list of M words would be complete without including this word. Muse is a writer’s awareness of our environment beyond the level of most people. Anything and everything can be a source of story ideas, no matter how large or small. I hear a fragment of a conversation and have a story starter, the way the light falls on a rose petal gives me a description to use, how a wine tastes or the caress of a fabric provides sensory feeling that translates into a character’s emotional reaction. It’s quite true what my tee-shirt says: Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.
Thanks, Tami for selecting the letter M for me. It worked so well. You’ve stirred my muse. I didn’t realize I used so many M words.
Do you have M word favorites? Make a comment and request a letter to join the Word List blog challenge fun.
Updated on April 8, 2018
I loved writing book reports when I was in school. Still do after a fashion.
Voracious reader that I am, I love to tell others about great books I read. So I’m constantly giving oral book reports in the form of “Have you read such and such?”
I also post reviews for the books I really, really love on review sites and at e-retailers.
That’s so important. All reviews help author sales. It doesn’t matter whether the review is good or bad.
People often say they don’t know how to write a review. It really isn’t difficult. A review doesn’t have to be long or detailed like those book reports for school. Even a sentence or two can convey whether you liked a book or didn’t.
Here are some suggestions:
“This story was well-told. I fell in love with the hero on page 2.”
“Always pleased with stories by this author.”
“Predictable, but still a good read.”
“So disappointed. Not up to her/his usual standard.”
If you’re still nervous about the actually posting a review on Amazon. Check out this video I found by Douglas Goldstein. It demonstrates exactly how to post a review for a book.
Updated on May 4, 2017
Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother. ~Oprah Winfrey
Today is Mother’s Day. I’m swinging on the porch swing thinking I totally agree with Oprah’s quote. I’ve some motherly women in my life. Sad to say, most of whom are no longer with me and only one I called Mother.
Next there’s her daughter Helen, the one who birthed me:
Apologies to my brother born over a decade after this picture was made. I couldn’t find a picture of all four of us with Mother, which made me sad. (Note to self–take more pictures.)
And last, but never least, my Aunt Bick, the one who always says, “The stork just left you at the wrong house.”
We’ve had some real adventures through the years. I love when you remember and we can relive those moments.
Happy Mothers Day to them all and all of you. Hope everyone is having a fantabulous day.