BACKSTORY DUMPS & TOP-HEAVY WRITERS

No, this not a self-help blog for big-chested writers. So you ask, what in the world could one thing have to do with the other? Consider dividing your manuscript into thirds. Top (beginning) Middle (duh) Bottom (ending). If you’ve got too much information or backstory dump in the beginning then your novel will be top heavy. Admit it, would you have been as curious about this blog if the title had been Backstory Dumps and Beginning Heavy Writers. I think not.

Backstory is everything that has happened to your major players from birth. Whoa. If you’re thinking that’s a lot of stuff. You’d be right. These are the incidents, accidents and important events that have happened to your characters. These are the things that have shaped their world views not to mention their expectations of the people around them. Quite simply, these are the things that have made them who they are. It provides their motivation or reasoning as to why they act and react the way they do.

Do we need backstory? Absolutely. But, we do not need to know that the reason Hero-To-Die-For doesn’t date is because he was stood up for the prom on the same night that his mother left his father and his big brother ran off with the lady who runs the dry cleaners. Or that Heroine Extraordinaire has commitment issues because she was left standing at the altar because her finance decided he was gay and wanted to spend the rest of his life in Memphis with his tabby cat named Elvis and a struggling piano player who just so happens to be losing his hair. These events can be included later, but only eluded to at the beginning.

For example, this latest manuscript I’m working on had the heroine being fired from her dream job in the first chapter and then her leaving town in the second chapter where she gets arrested. I wrote it, liked it and then decided to scrap it for a stronger more exciting beginning where she gets arrested right off the bat. Her internal thoughts hint at her woes, but that’s it. A brief mention on page 3—for now. I will, of course, go back and fill the reader in on the details later on, but for now, I hope it leaves the reader wondering what happened to place her in the bank parking lot, in a borrowed Lexus, with a bottle of wine and a loaded gun resting on her chest.

Make no mistake that in order to write believable characters you have to know their backstory top to bottom and from the inside out. You just don’t need to squeeze it all in the first chapter. Spread out the good stuff. Keep your readers wondering why and they’ll keep reading to find out.

Hugs,
Reese

15 comments:

Jessica Mobley said...

Good stuff mommy. I really thought you might be making a jab at big breasted women, but were cool now! Can't wait to read more of your new awesome book! Love you Mother Theresa!

Reese Mobley said...

Thanks for the support. No pun intended. XOXO always.

Joan Vincent said...

Great title, Reese, followed by excellent information. Backstory is a lot like visiting with a friend and you notice her eyes begin to glaze over. Way too much info. The same goes for our readers. They want action and forward motion, not idling in place or huge swatches of the past. Your change to beginning with the arrest meant you gave them action--a sure winner.
I agree that we have to know the backstory because it forms the present. But if we tell all of it up front we've lost the reader.

Roxann Delaney said...

Not only will dumping backstory lose the reader, but an editor, as well.

It's tough to balance, but feeding in the backstory, little by little, is the best way to keep the editor and the reader reading. They'll keep reading to know why and to gain more details. A hint, a line, a thought that builds throughout the story until all is revealed will do that.

Reese, I love the premise of your story! The arrest is the perfect place to start. It hits the conflict immediately AND keeps the reader wondering what led her to that point. Perfect!

Reese Mobley said...

Joan, thanks for commenting. It's hard to not dump every thing at once because we have so much we want the reader to know. This is a practiced skill that I'm getting the hang of.

Reese Mobley said...

Rox, thanks for the vote of confidence on my new starting place. You know the old saying, "write the first three chapters and then dump the first two?" Well that really was the right thing to do with this book.

Jeannie said...

If there's anybody who can tell you how NOT to begin your novel, it's me. I'm one of the queens of the info dump. LOL. =:-)

I regularly have to go back and choose a more dynamic point at which to begin a story. As most of you know, I'm a pantster, and I still wind up TELLING you about the hundreds of events that lead up to the hero having a dying woman leave him with a dangerously arcane book and her bat-winged cat, instead of SHOWING them arriving and the hero jumping to another dimension to save himself and the cat.

Like Reese said, it's a skill learned by practice. Sometimes you just have to dump the dump and start again in an active place.

BTW, Reese, it's unanimous so far. The arrest is the place to begin your story.

Starla Kaye said...

This is an excellent post about one of a writer's toughest things they face. Here you are with all of this background for the characters that you know and the readers don't...and all you want to do is get rid of it, share it now and be done with it. Unfortunately, you can't. I struggle with each and every story I write with the whole easing out bits of this information.

Reese Mobley said...

Jeannie, thanks for your comment. Recognizing a backstory dump is half the battle. Thanks heavens we can save it to use it later. It's kind of fun to weave it in at just the right moment. Good luck with your manuscript.

Reese Mobley said...

Thanks for the kind words Starla. It makes me feel better to know a seasoned writer like you still struggles with such issues.

Nina Sipes said...

Would you say that the story needs to begin in the middle of a scene? A professor has said the best place to put the punch is at the end of a sentence. He went on about a driver with the top down, wind flicking his shirt and toying with his hair, the breeze playing secrets with his ears, and how life was good, but what was he going to do with the body in the trunk.
This idea of starting a story in the action is interesting, but is it arresting? Memorable?

Nina Sipes said...

And could you hurry with that story? I wanna know why she's in the bank parking lot with a gun.

Reese Mobley said...

Nina, I'm no expert, but I would say that is a great beginning. Having a body in the trunk is very unexpected. Love it! I'm only on page 15 of this wip. I was writing like gangbusters then had a major roadbump and haven't been able to concentrate much since. Hopefully, life will get back to normal soon. Thanks for the comment. I can always count on you to liven things up!

Roxann Delaney said...

A good place to weave in backstory is at the end of a scene to keep the reader from putting the book down. :) Don't use that all the time though. It needs to be mixed up a little or it becomes predictable. The end of a chapter will work, too, but beware of using them for Turning Points. Those (turning points) need to make a change in the story for one or both of the protaganists (in a romance). If a revelation will do that, it can work if done well, but it can also be tricky to do.

I've just realized that to make my writing a little easier and to space out those backstory bits, I might want to include them when I'm plotting. Hmmmm...

Penny Rader said...

Great info, Reese! It's jmho, but I think that in your first draft it's okay to dump in your backstory, if that's the way you, the writer, get to know your characters. You can always go back in and cut out the dump, place it in a temporary file, and then sprinkle in the info as the reader needs to know it.