Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Backstory -- Finally, Two Rules

For various complex reasons -- none of them interesting -- I was reading an old post I'd written about backstory.  I found two rules I've decided to repeat here, since -- heck -- it's already written.

Two Rules for Adding Backstory.

The first rule is the 'Packing for Tahiti' rule

which is to say

you don't need as much as you think ...

because mostly you'll end up swimming along fine

and wrapping a towel around you 
when you get out
and sometimes,

you can just go naked.

The second rule is the 'Tangled Skein of Fate' rule, where,
 (and this might only apply to me and my tendency to construct silly and complicated plot lines)
if you find yourself having trouble slipping in the backstory,
then maybe you should reconsider
the very existence of
your backstory.

Do you need all this who-struck-John complication?

But then, with me, the need to reconsider my backstory
strikes with great frequency.


  1. I love these rules, and they are true 100%.

    I say do the damage in dialogue. Make it short, make it stick and keep to the pertinent deets.

  2. I discuss adding backstory in dialog at:

    and at

    Someday, when I am old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, I will write a book about writing. This is kinda iterative, isn't it?

  3. Christine11:37 AM

    I enjoy backstory very much when it is used prudently throughout a story but I do believe when it is included in the dialogue it can be smoother, particularly in the beginning of a story. One personal pet peeve of mine is opening a novel and seeing Prologue: and then a huge info dump describing the moonlit night, the darkened trees etc etc ad nauseum from 10 years before. I say get me into the story, make me know and care about the hero/heroine and their predicament before going on and on about the weather and the landscape. I find that is the fastest way to lose me as a reader. Once I am intrigued by a character I will want to read anything about them up to and including the porridge they had for breakfast 6 years ago.

    1. Ah ... prologues. Perhaps they belong to a more leisured age. I will admit I tend to skip 'em.

  4. Anonymous4:07 PM

    I had such a hard time with my backstory in The Seduction of Lady Phoebe, I ended up having to show what happened at the beginning of the first chapter. Then, because my hero came across so badly, the next scene was him arriving back in England eight years later, a much different man than when he'd left. I lost track of how many times I re-wrote the first three chapters. Generally I like to sprinkle it around sparingly. Great advice.

    1. First chapters keep getting re-written. At least, mine do. I keep putting stuff in and taking it out again. This is so inefficient.

      FWIW, I think you did exactly right in TSoLP.

  5. Ah, yes. The dreaded backstory dump. I find I put a lot more in than I need, and then break out my much-used red pen to delete it. Backstory is rarely as necessary as it seems, is it?

    1. I have a friend who used to write Reams of backstory. Chapters of it ...
      and then she'd sit down and actually write the story and throw all that out.

      She said it was her process. Worked for her.

  6. I rewrite my first chapters enough that I want to scream, "Didn't you see the synopsis?" at my characters. Sigh, they never seem to care that their backstory has become more complex. :)

    1. Who was it that said -- write the first chapter last ...?

      Here you are with so much to say about the characters and you barely know them. It's so unfair.

  7. Hi Jo, I just wanted to ask (and I hope that this'll reach you), how do you judge if your plot is long enough? if you've got enough scenes or enough things going on to make a full length novel? This is a problem for me because I end up never writing because I've fretted over the story to death, wondering over the length.
    Thanks :)

  8. First kinda answer is --

    There's no way to know how many words a section of plot will need
    till you have lots of experience with your own writing.

    Some folks take a plot point like 'they dig up the treasure' or 'they poison Uncle Clarence' or 'they make love'
    and get through that in 431 words therewith.
    Some folks write seven exciting chapters at 13,831 words.

    So the answer to finding out how much plot you need for how many words is to write a lot and then you will know.

    Second sorta answer to the second sorta question:

    There's fret ... and then there's writing.

    Who was it who said research isn't writing and talking about the story isn't writing and planning the story isn't writing?
    Writing is writing.

    Many good stories never get fixed in electrons because the writer wanted everything 'just so' in her outline before she could actually write.

    So my advice would be to take the plot you have and write it.
    Worry about the length later.

    You will notice this is the same response I gave to the first question. That is because I don't have a lot of answers so I use the same one over and over again.