She’s Back! Using Back Story in Fiction Writing

What a backstory!After a couple of tension-filled weeks, I’m back in the writing tips saddle. Of course, coming back makes me think about that perennial writer’s bugaboo–writing back story.

Writing Tip for Today: Every fiction writer uses back story at one time or another. How can you write effective back story without falling into the quicksand of too much?

Write What They Do, Not What They Did

Every memorable character has a history and that history contributes to the all-important element of motivation. Why is your character doing what she does? To answer, you must know your character inside and out. A good exercise is to do some automatic writing. Write a letter from your character to you, allowing your subconscious to bring up the answers to why Character A does the things he does. Maybe she’s never gotten over the death of her father. Or he’s been jilted or hurt in love. Whatever the past, you as author must uncover those hidden secrets, nurtured wounds and axes to grind. The best way to know all this is to write it down, searching your own world for clues. Now here’s the secret: You will probably use at best a fraction of this information, and you will use it only sparingly and on a need to know basis. As you write your story, keep these back story motivations in mind, but concentrate on writing what your character DOES NOW as opposed to waxing poetic about what they DID (BACK STORY!).

Write Back Story in Small Doses.

I advise writers to learn to weave in the back story on a need to know basis by adhering to the Rule of Three. You can insert up to three sentences of back story before the reader begins to wonder what’s important and when they are in time. This is especially true at the beginning of the novel, where readers will gladly forego back story in favor of action and forward movement. If you find that your back story is more interesting and compelling than your real-time story, you may want to reconsider which story to tell. The Rule of Three is only a guideline–many times you’ll want zero back story. And as the reader invests in your story, you may be able to insert longer back story portions. But beware: Back story is alluring to writers–you can easily convince yourself that readers must suffer through pages of it. Be willing to ax excessive back story.

Keep the Reader in Real-Time Scene.

Also known as the Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule, anytime you insert a memory, flashback or other kind of back story, you risk losing your reader. If for instance, your character is about to eat a forkful of hot, buttery mashed potatoes when HER MIND REELS BACK, that fork is stuck in midair as we attend to the back story. The real-time scene is paused as you go on about another place and time. Which place is the one you wish readers to pay attention to? Unfortunately, the longer you keep us in back story, the more the mashed potatoes get cold. Nobody likes cold mashed potatoes, and your readers don’t like having to decide which thing to attend to. At the least, be sure to touch back on the real-time scene frequently as long as you’re in back story. How often? Just use the Rule of Three, of course!

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.

5 comments on “She’s Back! Using Back Story in Fiction Writing

    • Thanks, Mary! As I said on FB, my dear husband of 38 years had a heart attack and is slowly recovering but it’s a big life change. Praise God for stents! Thank you for helping my writing tips get around!
      Keep Writing,

  1. Linda: So glad you’re back. Hope all is well with you and yours.

    As for writing back story… can you get away with more lines if you utilize it via the main character taking a nap or reminiscing?

    • Patrick,
      Excellent question! To me what you’re describing presents another problem: that of a real-time scene being very static. That is, you’d have essentially a character 1) alone on stage, 2) not doing much in the scene and 3)confusing the reader about what’s important. Yes, you can “get away with” adding more than 3 lines IF your readers are fully invested in the story (eg not right at the beginning), you have CRUCIAL info not accessible any other way and 3) you are sure to touch base with the real time scene during the flashback. I like what Gary Provost recommends: using a sensory detail (a blue tea cup, the smell of homemade bread) to get in and to get out of the back story. Then, during the memory, remind us of the real-time scene and then resume the memory. Make sense? Hope it helps.
      Keep writing,

  2. Pingback: Using Back Story in Fiction Writing | The End of Days is not yet upon us

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