Backstory

Backstory - what is it? I think of backstory as the information you get when you meet someone and learn about their life - where they went to school, how many people are in their family, what is their religion, what is their political viewpoint, etc.  These little details that have shaped a person over their lifetime. The person they have become in their life depends on so many socioeconomic factors that it is hard to label all of them. If you were to learn all of these things about a person when you first meet them, you won't have anything to discuss the next time you meet - if you even decide you want to spend time with them later on.  Think about this - when you meet someone - you don't tell them about your last bad relationship and yet this is an important factor in how you deal with future relationships.  Would you bring this up right away in your book as well?  You might not - because you don't want the reader to know everything that motivates your character.  You want to give hints and then, when the time is right - you reveal it because it's necessary for the plot development (or relationship).

Unfortunately, you cannot be inside your reader's head.  You do not know how much is too much or not enough. You can only go with what works for you. Do it move the plot along properly? Then it's in the right place.  Does it bog down the action - then it's too much.  You would not tell a new friend about Uncle Harry's battle with cancer while you're playing softball, would you? No, but if you learn your friend has a relative with cancer and you can empathize with her feelings, you might reveal it then. So, this bit of backstory is only important at a certain moment in time. Otherwise, you keep that information to yourself.  The same is true in a story.

How many of you create a character sketch before you work on the story? You know everything about your character, from the size of his/her shoes, to how many aunts and uncles, to even the favorite ice cream or magazine they read.  And yet, when you write the story, it may never come up that he loves to read Cosmo unless something happens in the plot to reveal it.  But for your purposes, it's important information to help shape your character. All of these little details can be backstory as well, and yet they can only be revealed when necessary.


What else is backstory? Educational background. Is it important your character attend college?  I read a book by Blythe Gifford In the Master's Bed where a female was disguised as a male while at Oxford when females were not allowed anywhere near the place.  She was an extremely intelligent female and this educational background of hers was key in order for her to blend in with the men at this university  Another instance is Diana Gabaldon's the Outlander. The heroine has a medical background.  She is a nurse.  When she is plunged into Georgian times in Scotland, it's important that we learn she is familiar with natural healing methods as well as her nurses' training so we can believe she knows how to use certain herbs to help the people she meets nearly two hundred years in the past.  The author sprinkles this information into the book where it is needed.  If we read about her special skills with herbs earlier on, we would have wondered why it was here when it had no significance to furthering the action along or in making our heroine believable. And finally, in Sherrilyn Kenyon's Darkhunter books, we never really knew anything about Acheron, but boy, oh boy do we want to know! When the book about him finally came out, it was well worth the wait.  Acheron was an extremely complex individual and his backstory was so twisted and heart-wrenching, we, the readers, were willing to read a bit more backstory because by this time, we WANTED to know.


By the same token, we would not believe the hero so ready to believe she is someone from the future until we learn about his own educational background. Here is a man who's spiritual upbringing allows him to make the leap of faith that this woman tumbled through a time portal when she finally tells him the truth.  Until then, she could not risk telling him this part of her backstory.  No one would have believed her.


Here is another example - when I read books by my good friend, Remi Hunter, I can hear the Chicago copper lingo coming through.  I know she is knowledgeable about Chicago by her comments and how her character speak.  When she is explaining a procedural action, she does it in a way that does not bog down the reader with too much police jargon that I want to roll my eyes and yell out "uncle". She puts in just enough in the right places that I go, "okay" and I can move on and keep working on the story.  This is not an easy thing to do, but she does it extremely well.  


I have read some authors only start their stories with prologues to get some of the backstory out the way. Others always open with dialogue and wait several pages to include backstory.  Every author has his/her own theory about backstory - how much and when to add it. For each author's sentiments there are many totally opposite them. Why? Because it doesn't work for them. I like to go back to my beginning - did you ever walk down the street and wonder - why is that girl with that guy?  And when you're on the beach you wonder "how could they read that book? I just couldn't get into it?" There are so many different opinions out there which is why it works in many different ways. SO when you are writing your story, remember there are no hard fast rules for backstory.  It all depends on your story and your characters. You will know how much is too much and when to add it or take it out.  Listen to the advice of published authors and other friends you trust, but in the end, if it doesn't work for you the way they recommend, then perhaps that is not the way to do it.

Sometimes Conflict is a Good Thing


Most people do not like conflict in their lives. Others thrive on conflict. Those who don’t like conflict call the others “drama queens”. Those who love conflict, think the other people lead boring lives.  Who is right? If you’re a fiction writer – romance, suspense, etc., then having conflict is necessary. If you do not have good conflict then the reader will put your book aside or worse yet – discard your book in a garage sale or give it away. We don’t want that. You want to write a book your reader will read so many times, the binding is falling apart and the corners are so badly dog-eared it’s hard to find your real spot. We all have those favorite books – the ones you kept on your bookshelf because you read it every year. It’s the same book you go to for help when you’re writing your own book because the conflict was so intense; you pick up different information every time. Passages are highlighted and you have post-its sticking out from odd angles. The question remains – how to do you create conflict in your story so intense your reader cannot put down your book?

Layers.

What do I mean by layers? Think of a cake – it only has two layers and is pretty simple. You have your top layer, the one everyone sees when you carry the cake into the room, and then there is the middle – the surprise if you put something interesting in it like cherries or peaches, and then the bottom layer.  Sometimes the bottom layer is so much like the top layer it doesn’t really surprise you at all.  Imagine if you changed the layer. If your cake was chocolate, you made the bottom layer while marble with red swirls, then everyone would be surprised and probably a bit intrigued why you made it so different.

If you are a writer, the reader can see the top layer of your characters and what motivates them to action, but if you want to intrigue them, you need to mix it up. You have to change what you think should happen and make something happen which will make your character extremely uncomfortable. This is conflict. 

There are many kinds of conflict but keep in mind you need an external conflict and an internal conflict to make the characters three dimensional. For example, it’s not enough to strand your hero on the top of a cliff, but put him up there with an sudden case of vertigo, a rattlesnake only two feet away, and having to choose between capturing a most sought-after object or letting go and saving the woman he loves makes your reader sit on the edge of his seat. Add in this is the only chance he’ll get to avenge his parent’s death and you can see what I mean. Each element heightens the tension and adds more conflict to your story. It becomes a balancing act. Then make your character do exactly opposite what everyone expects him to do.

Authors who write suspense are great at this. They manage to keep the reader on the edge of their seat throughout the story. You never know which way the story will really go and just when you think you have it all figured out, the writer throws in a twist that makes you want to fling the book across the room. And yet, in the end, you cannot imagine the story without that twist.  That’s great conflict and suspense all rolled into one.

So how do you know if your story has enough conflict to sustain it for 250 pages, 300 pages, or even 400 pages? The answer is in the layers again. You need to make complex characters that are not clean-cut. If you want paper doll figures that do exactly what you want, then your story will not be bought. It will be just as two-dimensional a the paper doll figures. Worse, if your story is bought, if the conflict is too watered down or bland, the reader will not even go past the first chapter.  The sales of your book don't pick up and your editor decides not to purchase any more books.

You need to hit your reader with the conflict from the very beginning if you want them to buy into your character and see what happens to them. If you open your scene with the heroine searching for clues to her parent’s murder, you need to place her in a dangerous situation so she can make a choice that will be in direct conflict with her goal. This choice not only will take her further away from her goal, but it will make her think about this goal in a new way. Does she really want to find this murderer? Will finding the murderer help her feel any better? Hell yes!

Okay, so now you’ve decided the heroine has to keep pursuing her goal. She has no choice. She is driven by this desire for revenge so intensely that it will color everything else she does in her life. She cannot make a single decision if it affects the outcome she seeks. If she finds a clue to a secret chest, she now has to find the key, but it cannot be so easy as stumbling across it. NO, she has to come against some bulwark – something that will impede her progress to such an extent that she will need to make a different decision. Will she go around, under, or through the bulwark.  Okay, so now make her do just the opposite of what she wants or needs to do.  If she wants to go around it, force her to take the more dangerous route – over it. You have now ratcheted up the tension ten-fold.

How do you turn your layer cake into an onion (and I don’t mean a stinky onion)? Add in the opposing character’s conflict – make it oppositional to the main hero or heroine and twist this person into hundreds of knots as well. Are you getting the idea now?

Last – if you’re writing a suspense or even a romance – there’s always a third party – a protagonist.  And you got it – they have conflict as well.  Not only do they have conflict – but their conflict is in direct opposition to the hero/heroine.  Once you throw this person into the mix you have a completely twisted story that will keep your reader riveted.  Now if you’re not sure how to do this – diagram it. 

Now you really think I’m crazy. I can already hear your groans of discontent. Think of your diagram as three interlocking roller coasters – they are dipping and diving in many directions, keeping the rider holding on for dear life. In the end, all three roller coasters have to head in the same direction – a direction that looks like they will collide and everything will explode.  But somehow it magically works out and our hero and heroine survive, the protagonist is destroyed, and the reader goes home with a satisfying feeling in his/her belly. Remember that with any good roller coaster, there will be times when the three parties will look like they will almost collide. But in the end, some twist will arise to turn things completely upside down and on its side, and that’s when you’ll slip in another clue that leads everyone toward the end goal.

Before we had computers, we wrote out books out in notebooks and piles of loose leaf paper. We drew diagrams and used index cards to plot and move things around to our satisfaction.  Now there are programs to help us do this.  Unfortunately, for those of us who are not computer literate, this can be a daunting task. How do I write down what I want and plug it into the computer when I can just take a piece of paper and draw it?  Do whatever works for you.  Once you have that diagram and you know where you want it to go, then post it up in front of you so you never forget to heighten the tension.

What do you do if you are a "seat of the pants" writer?  Just draw in the part of the roller coaster you know.  Draw each character's dips and turns.  Add to it as you go along.  When your roller coaster looks like it's boring and nothing is happening, add a steep climb and a quick drop - making one of the characters collide with another's course.  There!  You have conflict.  Then when it comes time to write your synopsis - it will be easy breezy lemon squeezy!!!

Good luck.


What is a Beta Reader?

We've heard of beta blockers and beta males but have you heard of the latest in the editing process - the Beta reader? I was at my writers's meeting one week ago when a fellow author mentioned she was almost ready to send her manuscript to her Beta reader. Not wanting to sound ignorant, I just tucked the information away to look up at a later date.

 Today I finally got a chance to look it up. Actually I was reading an article on the RWA PRO loop when I spied the phrase again. Apparently many writers solicit the use of a Beta reader. So I decided to do a bit more research.

A majority of Beta readers do not charge for their services, but a few do. Skilled Beta readers are voracious readers and have a variety of editing skills. Some are good with grammar, spelling, and punctuation, while others are great at character development and plotting. Some are detail oriented and can find inconsistencies in your writing such as the heroine's hair was tied back but then suddenly it was flowing down her back. Finding the right reader is just as important as finding the right critique partner. Each one gives you something you need.

One article states an author needs three things in the process of becoming published - a critique group, an editor, and finally a Beta reader. What successful writers use during their process differs but today, more and more writers find one more pair of eyes, especially unbiased ones can only help. Several Beta readers work for specific authors on a regular basis. You could ask a friend to be your reader but could you trust this friend to be blunt but professional? A friend might be afraid to hurt your feelings. So how do you find this person? Many authors solicit one online. Others will ask critique partners for suggestions. Still others will go through a variety of writing channels to find the perfect Beta reader for them. You must interview the person, perhaps review their work by allowing them to proof a section of your manuscript.

 If you like what they do then you've got yourself a reader. If not then you must keep looking. The last thing you need in a reader is the ability to keep mum about your amazing story! So tell me - what do you know about Beta readers? What do expect from them? Lastly how did you find your reader?