You know that person who tells the story about a five-second incident in the grocery store in a painful, 7.5-minute re-enaction? This happened, then that happened, then she said, and I was like, blah-blah-blah. We want the story to be over. We want the punch line. We want them to shut up.
As writers, we really, really don’t want to be that person.
We’re storytellers, but we’ve got to be self-aware story-tellers! Just like in real life, if you go on and on with backstory, you’re going to annoy people. Keep them wanting more….which means you have to know when to quit. If this is pretty darn hard in real life, it’s even harder in fiction. In real life, we know what happened to us. We know who we’re talking to. Our lives are our own, and there is no question (usually) about what actually happened. But in fiction, we don’t just need to figure out what to leave out. We need to create everything, and choose which of our own creations to leave out!
So, here are a few of the strategies I’ve picked up for doing a better job with this. Admittedly, this is a hard one for me, so I need all the strategies I can get! Here are a few I’ve been playing with. Hope they’ll be helpful to you!
- Think about the way your own flashbacks work. Do you smell a certain food, or see a certain model car, and think of something else? If so, how does that image or event flash into your mind? Thinking about the way memory works will help you to convey it better. For example, I recently saw a car on the highway that looked just like my grandparents’ old blue Cutlass Sierra. Immediately, I could feel the texture of the blue velvet seats, the comfort of being squeezed in between my MomMom and PopPop in the front bench seat, the happy anticipation of being allowed to do whatever I wanted (including eat Oreos and Butterscotch Krimpets for breakfast, or watch TV for hours!) Those three details probably give you about all you need to know about my relationship with my grandparents, and more clearly and enjoyably than if I gave you the play by play of being picked up for a sleepover, riding 45 minutes in the car, watching Nick at Night til 1 a.m., waking up and having my PopPop walk to Turkey Hill to get his coffee and my treats, then going shopping, then going to McDonald’s for lunch, then watching more TV, then going to a football game……you’re zoning out, aren’t you?
- Think about when your character might start to kick you under the table and tell you to shut up. My husband has brought me out of my quiet, introverted shell in the 10 years we’ve been together. But back in the beginning, he did all the talking, and I did all the under-the-table nudging. Stop talking, Honey. Let’s go. They don’t need to know those details. Enough! Now he sometimes has to nudge me under the table to tell me to stop talking, which he enjoys immensely. All that said, think about when you might be giving too many details or going on for too long. If you might start nudging the person you love, well, your character might start nudging you, too. Just remember….your character loves you. So be considerate. Obey the nudge.
- Keep them wanting more. I have been working through THE PLOT WHISPERER by Martha Alderson. She instructs writers to include ONLY enough backstory to inform each particular scene. My copy is full of underlined sections, but this one I should probably highlight in neon:
If you don’t keep the backstory vague in the beginning, it makes your decision about where to begin your story more difficult….Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every detail of a character’s past, from childhood to maturity. Rather than share everything right away and demonstrate how clever you are, consider instead how curiosity works.
Curiosity draws the reader deeper into the story world. Give away everything up front and you lose that.
- Condensation is key! Think about how you could condense a whole paragraph of backstory into one sentence. Is it possible to insinuate without divulging? Can you give a telling movement, a key physical feature or marking, a detail about clothing or makeup, or what’s in the character’s purse or wallet that would do the job? Readers are often smarter than we think they are. Think about what you pick up from other people’s insinuations, and go from there.
- Stay in the moment! Keeping flashbacks brief avoids pulling the reader out of the moment of the story. You want your reader to be absorbed. So keep it brief and keep the momentum going!
What works for you???