Tamera Alexander
Hebrews 12:1(NLT) "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish."


 What the Reader Doesn’t Know…Will Thrill Her!—Using Backstory Effectively—By Tamera Alexander


I’m currently in the midst of writing a first draft (which you might like to know…first drafts drive me absolutely crazy!  I much prefer the rewrite stage), and yesterday my critique partner returned a chapter of my manuscript with a portion of it highlighted. She wrote in the margins (using Word Track Changes, she lives in Kansas, I live in Tennessee), “Save this for later. Make us keep reading.”

 I read back over the passage, certain I’d removed any horrid clunks of backstory. But as I mulled over the sentence she was referring to, I thought, “You know, she’s absolutely right!” That wasn’t something the reader needed to know yet. In fact, withholding that information made the character and story more intriguing.

  I hit my backspace. Delete…delete…delete. 


Then today as I read a manuscript from a fellow writer, I noticed where she had a two to three paragraph “information dump” about her hero in the first three pages. She was doing the same thing I’d done and it’s an easy thing to do. As writers, we love our characters and we want the reader to love our characters too. Therefore we often dive right into the character’s past, telling all the angst of past experiences. We think the reader needs to know certain things about our characters in order for them to become invested in the character, in the story. But the truth is…they don’t.

 These occurrences are called backstory. Backstory can appear in an “information dump” (where the author includes a chunk of narrative telling us—however beautifully—about why the hero/heroine is the way they are today). It can also show up in dialogue (where two characters who know each other well and who also know a certain situation well, proceed to rehash every little detail so that the reader will know the information too). Both techniques weigh our stories down. Backstory kills the forward momentum, and dilutes the “ah ha” factor of why readers read. 

We read to have questions answered, and backstory pulls the rug out from under the anticipation we’re working to build. There are several different ways to get reader invested in your characters without lots of backstory. Readers will identify with characters by:  

1.    Create sympathy (We identify with people we feel sorry for, for victims, people who are wounded—long before we know what hurt them)




2.    Put your character in jeopardy (We identify with people who are in danger of losing something of vital importance, physical danger—long before we know why they’re after that particular object)



3.    Make  your character likeable (We identify with people who are likeable—long before we know what lies beneath their surface. And remember—likeable and empathetic are not the same thing. If you open a story with the hero in company of friends who love them, then subconsciously we will love that hero too.)




4.    Make your character funny (We identify with people who make us laugh, especially those who can make us laugh at ourselves—long before we know what gave that person their spunky quick wit)



5.    Make your character powerful/good at what they do (We identify with people with whom we empathize (including when we greatly admire their skill)—long before know how they learned that skill or what motivated them to learn it) 



Well placed SNIPPETS of information—remember, just a sentence here or two, no more—can be great for pulling in the reader. Make it a brief thought of the character, in close Point of View, not narrative. And even then, remember…what we consider ‘imperative for the reader to know’, most often time—isn’t. Yet!

 A great litmus test for deciding whether something stays, or goes, is this:

Ask yourself, “Is it crucial for the reader to know this?”

Then ask, “Is it crucial for the reader to know this NOW?”

Then act accordingly. 

That said…  Backstory is not inherently bad. 

When you’re writing that first draft and you realize that what is flowing from those rapidly typing fingers of yours is backstory—LET IT COME! This is the place where you get to know your characters, on the page. Even if you do characters sheets or free form character biographies, there are some things you won’t find out about your characters until you’re in the story and things start taking a life of their own.

So when you recognize backstory in your first draft (or if you’re like me and you write and edit, write and edit, as you go), copy that portion of backstory and paste it into an Excerpt document. My Excerpt document normally swells to at least 5,000-7,000 words (give or take) as I’m writing a book. I drop stuff in and mark it for later. Then when I reach an “ah ha” moment (those gradual epiphanies throughout the stages of a novel), I run back over and grab those sentences and blend them in. (It’s great for bolstering word count on those days!)

Backstory is crucial to the writer as we write because it tells us the “why” behind the character’s motivation. It gives the emotional connection we need with that character in order to write their struggle with intensity and authenticity. But the reader doesn’t need to know the “why” behind the character at the outset. Probably not even at the middle. In fact, to give it to them prematurely robs them of the full reading experience, and robs your story of the deepest emotional impact.

So, I’m headed back to my manuscript to move what my critique partner flagged on page 78….to page 157, maybe even farther than that, we’ll see. And my story will be the better for it. 

Ah…I’ve so much yet to learn! Don’t you just love writing!  




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