Last week, I introduced you guys to my first three Deadly Sins of Writing. Many of you, in the comments, requested I keep going and reveal the rest of my Deadly Sins. All I have to say is, y’all asked for it :D.
Creating great characters has to be one of the toughest tasks for any fiction writer to successfully accomplish. Let’s be honest. Plot is important, but characters have the power to make or break a story. Most of us don’t remember plot…we remember people. We identify. There is something about that character resonates within our soul, and we’re hooked.
Today’s blog will help you give life to great characters. How? By teaching you not to kill them.
There are a number of ways to strangle, smother, or otherwise crush the life from what could have been a wonderful character. One popular method of involuntary homicide (character-cide?) is the ever-tempting Bog of Back-Story.
Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and we ain’t getting out.
I have edited hundreds of short stories and novels. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read a really clever story that had some great forward momentum…only for the author to stop and go back in time to explain why such-and-such did thus-and-such. What? Huh?
It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of our failure to plan ahead of time. Writers (especially new writers) are super excited to start writing, so they often charge into a plot without understanding the psychological terrain of the characters ahead of time. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.
New writers often try to thread flashback after flashback into the plot as they try to understand who their characters really are. Weighting down any plot with bag after bag of memories, dreams and flashbacks is a surefire way to sink any story…and kill all souls on board.
Failure to understand key characters ahead of time often has terrible effects.
Back Story Kills Plot Momentum
Loading back story onto the narrative often has the effect of riding in a car with a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. We just about get going and it looks promising and….we roll backwards, stall and have to wait a few minutes to get going. Just like we wouldn’t want to make a 700 mile drive this way, readers don’t want to read a novel this way either. It leaves them beat up, exhausted and in a foul mood.
Back Story Creates Fish Heads
On virtually every first novel I’ve edited, there is what author Candy Havens calls a fish head. It is almost always 100 pages long. Why? Because the writer who takes off writing without knowing her characters needs roughly a hundred pages to figure them out. The first hundred pages of first-time novels (98% of the time) are something that can be chopped off and thrown away…ergo the term fish head.
Every character sounds alike and the dialogue is flat. Then, suddenly about page 100, the characters start coming alive and develop their own voices. It is also about this point the writer finally settles on what the real story problem is.
Doing detailed character backgrounds ahead of time can prevent fish heads. Take time to write out each major character’s story. Write freely and let your imagination go wild. Then, once you get to the plotting, it will be easier to see what parts of the back story are good to harvest for your main story for plot and even sub-plots.
Back Story is Important but not Always Relevant
Back story is critical for our characters. In fact, in my current critique group, highly detailed character backgrounds are the first step before ANY plotting. It is absolutely essential to know each of the characters and why they are good, evil, confused, etc.
Because we are all the sum of our experiences and our backgrounds affect our choices, body language, dialogue and decision-making. Characters need to be real people with baggage (Just because they have baggage, doesn’t mean the reader wants to hear about it. That is therapy, not fiction).
What is NOT, relevant, however, is that the reader know ALL of these critical details unless they apply to the current story problem. We don’t need a heavy-handed flashback to when our heroine was a little girl and her father left her and there was great crying and gnashing of teeth.
We (readers) really don’t need to know the why behind everything. Don’t believe me? Go read my post about why the Star Wars prequels sucked. Explaining is not necessary and it ruins tension (The Force was better before it was explained).
Yes, our readers might want to know why, but let them suffer. Not giving readers what they want when they want it is exactly what keeps them turning pages and buying books. It’s called dramatic tension.
Instead of dumping a crude flashback in the beginning so your reader will understand Such-and-Such…let them wonder. It’s good for them and it’s good for your career.
Think of it this way.
Writers are word magicians. If we tell the audience how we made the woman float, we ruin the show.
Back Story Needs to Be Used Sparingly
Back story gives life to a character much like water gives life to a plant. However, filling a plot with back story (like overwatering) will just kill forward momentum and drown your character. Part of growing as novelists requires we learn finesse. Many of us, when we start our writing, are very heavy-handed and it takes time, practice and study to acquire the skill of folding back story seamlessly into the narrative. We need to learn to be so smooth that the reader never even sees what we’re doing.
A quick example:
“Fifi, are you going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.
Fifi wanted to meet up with Josh, and hoped the night would go as planned. But, bad things had happened before. Fifi thought back to the time her father had promised he would take her to the Father-Daughter Dance. She had been waiting weeks to wear the pink chiffon gown her mother had bought her for the occasion. Even though her mother had forbidden her to wear it, Fifi would sneak the dress out of her closet and twirl in front of the mirror like a ballerina. She remembered counting the days up to the dance and how it had started to rain and her mother begged her father not to go to the store for a corsage to go with Fifi’s dress…
And we have just taken a side-trip into The Land of “Who Cares?”
This approach takes away from the current story problem and trails the reader down a story thread that may or may not be relevant to the current story problem. Yes, Fifi might have had a tragedy, but telling all the details kills the mystery and ruins the momentum of the current conflict.
So instead, try something like…
“Fifi? Are You going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.
“I don’t know. I don’t have the best history with dances,” Fifi replied. “People tend to die.”
See how much shorter this is? It gives back story, but doesn’t tell so much the reader gets lost and distracted. Also, by not telling everything, the reader wants to know more.
Fiction is a lot like dating. We writers are courting the reader. Give too much too soon, and it’s too easy. We ruin the thrill. Don’t give enough? The reader goes looking for more exciting fiction.
So have you escaped the Bog of Back Story and lived to tell the tale? What techniques do you recommend for avoiding this writing pitfall? Have you thrown a book across the room because it kept going back in time? Or does it not bother you? Come on and share your thoughts.
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I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
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My first novel this was a huge problem! Now I do a character study sheet and while I have to know what’s motivating my character’s I’m better (but not perfect) about only showing my readers the important bits. Thank goodness for critique groups.
I’m a newbie so I’m glad I’m catching this now. The most helpful section for me: “fish-head.” At least that first 100 pages doesn’t have to go to waste. I can cut it out and just keep it as character reference. Thanks again for sharing your pearls of wisdom!
Yep, the character studies help enormously. I also sometimes go ahead and write the “fish head” (love that description!) then cut it out and set aside. It’s for me, not the reader. And then IF IF IF something’s necessary I can lift a fishy-scale from the head and drop in where needed in the book, but not the whole thing.
Oh please tell me this post was not inspired by what I just sent you. *quietly gagging on my coffee*
I know I have gotten mired in this in the past. I now have a file called “Pieces of Cool Stuff” and I save those yummies in case I can use them later. I think the fear is in deleting something we might want something later. My cyber file of tidbits has helped with this.
The thing about backstory is that it is so tempting to do. I think you’re onto something with the idea that we “need” to relate backstory because we having thought planned the psychological landscape the character will navigate throughout the story. No matter the cause, you’re right. Backstory belongs on a character sketch…not in an MS.
Oops. Sorry. It’s me again :-P. I’d apologise, but I think I already did – sorry :-)).
The thing, at least to my poor wit, with back-story is that it too often misses a gear.
Er… what did he say?
Buggered if I know – think he might say it again?
Don’t know. Ask him.
No – you ask him…
OK. I’ll try that again :-).
Back story, if it’s back story, goes backwards. As you say. And we don’t want to go backwards. As you already said, we as readers want momentum, forward velocity, and we as writers (there’s a talk on split personality at the town hall tonight – I’m in two minds whether to go :-P) should try to achieve that. So what’s that got to do with backstory?
To be good backstory, it should move the plot and the action forward. Or say something that really couldn’t be said earlier, but should be said now so the plot _can_ move forward, or say something that takes what the reader has been led to believe and flips it on its head – at the right time. So good backstory should say something new.
If it doesn’t advance the reading experience, it shouldn’t be there. But if it’s backstory that goes forward – then sometimes it can. Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps.
Of course, we all think we’re the exception to the rule. This is where I could get massively over-impressed with myself and say something like ‘hey, but I got it right! So here’s my 99999999999999999 word example from my incredible book XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX to prove it!’
But I’m not here to advertise. And anyway, that book’s still on the street. Even if the example is only 4300 or so words :-P.
I jest. I tease. Probably :-P. But really, a good backstory element _can_ be useful – if it’s really a forward gear in disguise.
Or not. After all, I’m male. So I’m an Idiot by definition :-)))
Hmmm. That probably means we agree again, Lady Kristen. That either makes me really smart, for agreeing with you – or you crazy, for agreeing with me :-). I’ll go with Door A….
I feel that as I get older, my patience wears thinner. I may not give up on a book with too much backstory, but if it goes for more than a paragraph, I might skim over it. I know, shameful. I remember reading one book where the first chapter was in the present, and then the next five or so were backstory. Uy.
I completely agree that writing is like a courtship with the reader. In fact, that’s exactly what I called it in my Row80 update a couple weeks ago when I was struggling with the story moving too fast. That mindset really helps me stay on track with pacing.
I agree! I have less and less patience for backstory as I get older. The book I’m revising now has almost zero backstory, but I’m freaking out because the next in the series will probably need a little more.
The advice in this blog is great to keep in mind though. Less is more!
I normally lurk on your website, but I wanted to tell you that this post is what I needed to see. I have done many editing projects and I am always terribly distracted by back story. I have recognized this in my own writing as well. Now when I see it, or try to use it I will refer back to this post. It gives me the words to explain and dissuade.
I can’t believe how often we as authors lose our words and can’t find a way to explain. You did it! Kudos!!
Someone needs to send this post to J. A. Jance. The 50/50 split between actual story and the MC reminiscing had me drop the book after 3 chapters. I kept thinking, “Yes, that’s nice, but what’s happening now?” Anyway. /rant
As for my own writing, I’m trying to move off the sere Plains of Not Enough Details and into the Foothills of Adventure. It’s the same comment I kept getting on my high school essays. “Please expand on your points.” Half the time I assume that because I know the back story and can make the logic leap from point A to quadrant gamma, so can my readers. (What do you mean you want to know what happened to the MC in the three plot-relevant months since the last chapter?)
But, that’s what editing and rewriting is for. And soon, beta readers! 😀
That rule is a good one to follow. The only exception I can think of is a novel by Patrick Rothfus called The Name of the Wind. The first several chapters follow the present, but almost the entire rest of the book is a big flashback, telling the story of the main character’s life. However, the way he structured the novel and his almost lyrical prose, made the book a winner. If it does count as back story, it’s definitely the exception, not the rule.
True, but if the story is about the charachters past, then by modern commercial fiction, It’s not going to sell , considering 99.999% of writers are new to the profession they are better served by staying away from using it. At least until they can nail down the basics of a compelling plot and charachterization. As a reader, I look at back story and flashbacks as lazy writing..
I’m thinking about my first novel – and the fish head term is dead on! (LOL)
Brilliant post. Will RT. Every beginning writer needs to read this. Love your example of Fifi’s prom. This is superb advice: “Take time to write out each major character’s story. Write freely and let your imagination go wild. Then, once you get to the plotting, it will be easier to see what parts of the back story are good to harvest for your main story for plot and even sub-plots.”
I always say first drafts are about the writer getting to know the characters, so write away. But be prepared to cut half of it in revisions.
I wrote fan-fiction before I started writing my own stories, and it was helpful for me to learn the basics of storytelling, and what needs to go in and what doesn’t.
My skills aren’t anywhere near perfect, though, and I look back at some of my writing and am both horrified and in awe, because the writing itself is good, I just didn’t understand back then about controlling the flow of information to the reader.
I feel like I do spend a lot of time on back story, because I do need to be aware of it as the author. I’ve learned where the reader doesn’t need to know it, though. I don’t always execute it well, but that’s what editing is for, right? 😀
Great points! Your example was very effective. But I’m sad that the extraneous writing is called “fish head” — don’t you know that all the best parts of the fish is in the head? Never understood why people threw it away when, in my family, it’s considered an honor to get to eat the fish head! 😛
Great post. Characterization is something I’ve always been told I was strong at. I’m getting better with plotting, but the backstory thing was something I really needed work on. It was hard for me to figure out what needed to be there and what didn’t. In my head, it was all relevant while in reality, only about 20% of it was needed.
Thankfully my critique partner Catie Rhodes set me straight, and I’ve gotten most of the issues worked out. Nothing is as valuable as CP.
One of the first manuscripts I was given to edit had this problem in *spades!* Not only did the author backlog *every* motivation – but they *told* me each and ever little thing. They broke your golden rule of remembering your reader is intelligent!
I think these “deadly sins” are so very important reminders for all of us as well as great information for the new author. I make a point of telling my authors “if you’re *telling* us about the background, what are you showing us?” Can that exposition be broken into little glittery flakes and sprinkled throughout the writing? Make your readers wonder and wait. Like Christmas morning.
Thank you for posting these! I hope everyone reads this and can at least relate to it – then takes it back to their WiPs, digs out their scalpel and grater and makes bog glitter to sprinkle throughout their work.
They’ll thank you later once they find the boot that was left behind in the bog!
This post inspired me to read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and take my current WIP back to stage one. Now, with a plot outline that makes structural sense and a better understanding of my characters, I can move steadily forward without flashbacks popping up like toadstools. Thanks for another great post.
I’m in two minds about this one. I have see it used to both great and detrimental effect in storytelling. One of the better examples of where it workds is in The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr. It was his debut novel which was brilliant. I thought, however he made a graver mistake – the narrator died!!! Still, his use of backstory was masterful and made for some compelling writing.
I think that the reason it mostly fails is that a lot of (beginning) writers see backstory as a good way to fill word counts. Or perhaps it boils down to writing insecurity, that they are afraid their characters won’t be understood or loved without backstory. If the writing is not driving the story and plot forward, then I think it is safe to say don’t include it.
Another great post by you that gets the old noodle working. Thanks.
I’ve always hated doing character worksheets — now I know why. Because I reallyreallyREALLY need to do them. I think I’m going to have to come up with my own version though. I do like writing about a character — brainstorming. Maybe I just hate the worksheets.
Fish heads, love it!
Thank you. Your writing counsel always seems to get to me at exactly the right moment. Your post on adverbs and ellipses and exclamation marks etc REALLY hit me hard and I embarked on an intense edit of my entire manuscript. Which as i near the final 80 pages of 300 – i have to say, it really needed. Now, you point out the prob with too much backstory ( i love the bog and the dating analogies by the way!) I have a couple of points of backstory that Im now going to take a second look at.
I appreciate your writing tips. My (soon to be published) book thanks you.
Love the “Fish Head” explanation. (Wasn’t there an old song about fish heads?) My first revision of my first novel saw almost two chapters hit the scrap heap.
I love the reference to Fish Heads, too. I tell folks in my editing workshops to use the fish-cleaning method of tightening their work. Cut off all the heads and tails. I see this inclusion of back story as a huge problem with a lot of beginning writers. It is almost as if they think they need to put it in the book if they went to all that trouble to create the back story.
First post though I’ve been devouring your blog and I have a question. You can’t put tons of back story in a conversation either, so how do you know when the balance is just right? One reader will say ‘not enough,’ while another says, ‘holy crow, I’m glazing over here!’
And I love the ‘fish head’ analogy. :o)
Great advice! Thank you so much!
Great post on character building and the dastardly Backstory Bog. I shall keep this writing sin alive and well in my memory to avoid burying favorite charactors und verdant terrain!
Excellent points. Never heard the term fish heads before, but it’s appropriate, as it makes the story stink (sorry, couldn’t resist!)
Off to check out earlier posts…
Donald Maass says, “Back story should only be used if it adds uncertainty to the present.”
That one sentence does it for me.
I dig that. Good rule. So awesome to see you here Jason *hugs*.
When revising, I now try to think, “Would Kristen backhand me for including this?” You wouldn’t believe the progress! 😉
LOL. Nice. Hey, if it works *shrugs* Happy to be of help there.
Oh how true! I love to be baited and teased.
Thanks for reminding me about the back-story bog. it is so easy to fall into that trap, as you are convinced that no-one will understand a particular action unless they the full back story to it. It takes the mystique out of the novel.
My general (and purely personal) guidelines for backstory.
1: What parts of however much book sits before it are more clear after reading it?
The lower the answer (approaching zero), the more reason to cut it.
2: How much of the book that follows it remains unclear at the end without it?
The lower the answer (approaching zero), the more reason to cut it
3: How many new questions does it raise in the reader’s head?
The lower the answer (approaching zero), the more reason to cut it
I always do a detailed character sketch before I start writing, but I still sometimes find myself mired in that bog.
Love this advice, Kristen. The bog is tempting because we want our readers to understand, but I’m finally getting it through my brain that the magic of wonder and mystery is perfection. After all, that’s why I read a good story, so why wouldn’t I want to give my readers the same joy?
Great post! “Bog” is a fantastic analogy. 🙂
God, I love it when you teach!!
I missed out on this post yesterday, but I’m glad I came back today.
Thanks so much for your wisdom!!
Have a wonderful Tuesday!
well said. I’ll take it in stride.
All writers – amateur and professional – will benefit from this information. Thank You!
I was once told to take my characters – all of them – and write out every detail I could think of for them. Do they have scars? Were they ever sick as a child? What is their greatest fear? Hopes, dreams?
It was painful, but taught me so much more about my own characters than I ever realized. One turned out to be gay (he’s one of my favorites!) and another one was just begging to be killed off.
I now do this before I begin writing, ‘Chapter One’. Always.
Thanks for another awesome blog, Kristen!
In your second example, when Fifi says, “People tend to die,” you’re right- the reader wants to know more. Aren’t we eventually going to have to do a full reveal in some form of flashback?
No. It can be revealed in dialogue. Less is often more. Flashbacks kill forward momentum of the main plot, and most of the time that is BAD.
This is a great, thought provoking post.
When flashbacks work, and the first example that comes to mind is the complex and artful flashback of Stuart Redman in the first few pages of Stephen King’s The Stand, it’s because they move the psychological or character narrative forward.
In the case of Stuart Redman, we see the series of hard breaks and selfless choices that lead to his being stuck in the small town of Arnette as the plague hits. The flashback is woven into the present action and works beautifully, but to pull it off, you have to understand every nuance of the character.
Plot naturally derives from strong characters, their desires, their needs and conflicts and how they ultimately transform. The more deeply a writer understands a character, the more artful the flashback.
I know this is a major problem I must work on. For my current WIP, I’m trying something a little different. I writing the key points of the back story out in an outline. Whenever I fit a piece into the story I will check that item off the outline. This will hopefully keep me from repeating myself and allow me to use it more sparingly. I’ll have to touch base to let you know how it worked!
Great topic as always!
Sadly I fell into the 98% of first writers. The first 100 pages (that is quite an amazing stat, as I think it was almost exactly 100 pages) of my first novel were removed because they were BORING! Learnt my lesson though. Great post Kristen!
One prominent example: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You won’t get to the meat until after the first 100 pages. First 100 pages is boring. After that, I can’t put the book down.
You have a very good point. I will have to go back and look to see if anything in my first couple chapters have started to reek!
I appreciate this article and the examples given.
I know not to write backstory, however I have an assignment to write a backstory for a character,(for my writing group) to 1000 words, and am finding it hard, ie to get to 1000 words.
I also have a problem describing the character in 3rd person, many of the sentences start with ‘she’ or the character’s name, hard. I just made her meet a stranger in a cafe so may include some dialogue.
I hope that it’s ok to ask a question on a thread thats a couple years old. I was googling “writing backstories” and your site popped up :). I understand about not bogging down a plot with irrelevancy, however, What if the story starts “in medias res” ? “To prepare for the future they must learn from the past”. Is the basis for what I’m writing. Thank you in advance for any advice or opinion you have :).
Reblogged this on J. R. FRONTERA and commented:
A rampant discussion among my writer’s group just lately … how to handle backstory? What is too much? Too little? Are flashbacks and dreams to convey relevant events ever okay? And then we found this excellent post by the brilliant Kristen Lamb! I think she says it perfectly:
As a new writer, I really enjoy reading your blog posts. I laughed out loud at this one. Thank you so much!