How to Handle Back Story

Last post, we discussed “bullying” one’s Main Character into action and keeping her in danger. One of the best ways to keep readers interested in that character is to understand his motivation. What makes her react to things the ways she does?
Writing Tip for Today: Most of the time, understanding a character’s motivation involves back story, or what happened before the story opens. Here are some tips for keeping your back story tamed:

  • Choose Action Over Explanation. Remember that handy acronym: R.U.E.? Resist the Urge to Explain? Readers are willing to trade an incomplete history for ACTION. Get your MC working on the present day problems–which may be the same old demons she’s fought for years. But instead of giving us the history of the world, paint motivation through reaction to events happening in real time.
  • Choose Weaving, Not Chunking. If you dump all the background material into the reader’s lap at once, he’s not likely to remember much of it, even if he keeps reading. Instead, learn to weave bits of the back story around and through the real time scenes on a need-to-know basis.
  • Choose the Rule of Three. I recommend writing only about 3 sentences of back story in any one place. More than that, and the real time scene begins to fade away and is replaced by the flash back. The problem with this approach is that readers may not remember (or care) what the character was doing before her “mind reeled back.” This is also known as the “Cold Mashed Potatoes” rule.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “How to Handle Back Story

  1. Juggling backstory can be as easy as juggling player pianos. I don’t add any, and I get a lot of beta reader feedback that they “need” to know what came before.

    I sneak it in there here, there, and yonder, and I get “what’s that mean?” or “I need more about this.”

    I put it into a short block and I get “Info dump!”


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