Posted On July 24, 2009 by Print This Post

Ask an Editor: Backstory and Pacing

Adrienne, Tracey and I are delighted to welcome Theresa Stevens, Managing Editor at Red Sage, back to Romance University as a regular columnist. Each month, Theresa will choose a question submitted by one of our readers and provide answers and advice. So let’s get started!

As soon as I saw the “Backstory slowing your pace?” description introducing your monthly column, I knew I had to write.  My current novel (a short contemporary romance) opens with a chapter that sets my hero on his task and I need his backstory to get the reader to understand why he agrees to take the task on in the first place.  I’m afraid that, without understanding the “why” of it that he’ll come across as a pushover (instead of a man who values loyalty and honor and family) and the parallels between the hero’s situation and the heroine’s will be lost if I don’t lay certain details out…. but I’m info-dumping!  Help!  How do I do this without putting my reader into a coma?

Thank you so much!

Julie Harrington 

Hi, Julie,

That’s a great question, and the perfect follow-up to last month’s post on backstory. We see loads of problems with first scene info-dumps, but the good news is that these kinds of problems are usually easy to fix.

Based on what you’ve told us, you’re already doing a couple of things right, so let’s take a look at those first. Our goal will be to preserve and enhance these good things.

First, you’ve got a character confronted with a choice, and he makes a decision that leads to action. In other words, there’s an actual scene here. It’s not all backstory. Characters are interacting and meaningful change results from that interaction. That’s good. (I assume there’s more than one character even though you only mention the one. I assume you’re not starting with something passive and solitary like traveling to a new location or thinking about his next move.)

Next, you’ve got lead characters with emotional arcs that mirror each other. This is good. This lays the foundation for the reader’s belief that these two people actually belong together. This is the key to the whole romance, and it’s good that you’re setting up for it right from the beginning.

Finally, it looks as though you’ve got a properly motivated character. I say “looks as though” because we’re not measuring the motivation against the actions – we can’t do that on the basis of the information provided. But it’s probably safe to assume that the motivations you mention (good, noble things like loyalty) are in proportion to the decision made, enough so to get the ball rolling on the plot.

Just to be on the safe side, though, you might review the scene with proportional motivation in mind. Big changes need big motivations. There is a possibility that you’re reaching for backstory because the change is big and needs bigger motivation than is first apparent from the scene action. Instead of dealing with it in the present moment of the scene, you might be reaching backwards for material to prop up the present moment.

A little of this is fine, and probably even inevitable, but too much can crush your pacing. Which leads me to what I suspect is the key issue in your scene’s pacing issue:

I’m afraid that, without understanding the “why” of it that he’ll come across as a pushover….

Pushover. Yikes. In other words, your character is going to readily agree to do something that the reader might not easily sympathize with. And your scene “explains” that by giving the backstory about loyalty and family and all that good stuff so that the reader will continue to admire the hero. Nutshell version of possible scene, exaggerated for teaching purposes:

John:  You need to kill the mayor.

Kevin:  Okay. Will do.

Narrator:  Kevin agrees to kill the mayor because the mayor is initiating eminent domain proceedings against his family’s farmland, which has been handed down through five generations and is the only thing standing between his elderly mother and starvation. The mayor is the key player in the sale, and if he’s out of the picture, the town council will drop the matter. The mayor wants the farmland because of an argument he had with Kevin’s father in 1984. Etc. Etc.

See that? Unsympathetic act. Ready agreement. Motivation by backstory.  And what’s missing? Conflict.

Conflict is the engine that drives every page of a well-told tale. For that reason, I will recommend you shift the focus of your scene *away from explaining* the decision and *toward conflict* over the decision. What are Kevin’s reasons for resistance? (Hint: they should also be the reader’s reasons for being skeptical or unsympathetic.) What if Kevin and John fought about it? Kevin could still agree in the end for the very same reasons, but now the scene would be dynamic and conflict-driven, and you’d gain reader sympathy for Kevin.  For example: 

John:  You need to kill the mayor.

Kevin:  Hell, no! Are you crazy?

John:  But you have to stop the mayor from forcing the sale of the farmland, or Mom will be homeless.

Kevin:  Yes, but I’m no murderer. I’m going to hire a lawyer.

John:  You can’t stop the mayor with a lawsuit.

Kevin:  I can if I tell the judge why the mayor is picking on my family. He’s got no good reason to want that farmland.

John:  But they changed the laws. The mayor doesn’t need a good reason. He doesn’t need any reason at all. That’s why you have to kill him.

Etc.

John and Kevin continue to argue, and as Kevin presents objections and John overcomes them, Kevin isn’t in danger of being a pushover. He’s resisting. Sure, it’s easy to resist becoming a murderer (for most of us, anyway – Kevin might have to capitulate). But even if Kevin is resisting something else – even something good like taking the kids for an ice cream cone – the point is to have him resist. Let him form objections, and let those objections be overcome by rationales the reader can understand. Then he’s not a pushover, but a reasonable man, and the reader will bond with him because they share his objections. 

During the course of his resistance, some backstory will be more naturally revealed. How much? Exactly enough for the argument between them to proceed to its conclusion. And not a drop more. Your job at this point is not to “fill the reader in” on all the details of the landscape. Your job is to lure them in with conflict and dynamic change, and keep them guessing.

In other words, don’t give them enough information to explain everything that happens on the *current* page. Give them just enough – just barely enough – to get them to the *next* page. Otherwise, you’re in danger of undercutting your conflict by explaining it away.

Does this help? Feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments if you have any.

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26 Responses to “Ask an Editor: Backstory and Pacing”

  1. Theresa, thanks for another great post. I must admit that I’m a little backstory-shy at the moment. Your post should help me regain some confidence in this area.

    Thanks! Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | July 24, 2009, 5:42 am
    • Hi,

      This is a great blog! Thank you!

      In the Devil Wears Prada doesn’t the prelude or first chapter show the main character in a panic attack about her job? But the next chapter is a flash back to how she got the job. Would this be considered a successful employment of backstory early on?

      Posted by Lizzie | August 7, 2009, 10:01 pm
    • Hi,

      This is a great website. I have a question about backstory. In the Devil Wears Prada doesn’t the prelude or first chapter start with main character in a panic attack about her job? But then the following chapter f

      Posted by Lizzie | August 7, 2009, 10:15 pm
  2. Theresa –

    I can’t tell you how happy we are to have you join the RU crew. Welcome and wonderful post!

    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | July 24, 2009, 7:46 am
  3. Hi Theresa!

    Thanks for posting here, it was a great read! The “give them just enough to get them to the next page” is just exactly the comment I was looking for….my heroine’s conflict is explained in a fight scene in about chapter 4 or 5…and until then I drop little hints as to what the conflict is about in an attempt (of course!) to keep the reader reading! Thanks – that and your examples cleared up a lot for me!

    carrie

    Posted by carrie | July 24, 2009, 8:45 am
  4. Hi Theresa and thanks for being here. Great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | July 24, 2009, 10:38 am
  5. Theresa,

    Thanks for another great post! Once again your examples showed me what was missing–but that I couldn’t quite put my finger on!

    Thanks and all the best,
    Laurie

    Posted by Laurie P. | July 24, 2009, 10:54 am
  6. Theresa

    Thanks for a great post that clarifies a lot for me. Backstory is a pain, but still necessary — thanks for the suggestions to deal with it.

    Posted by Beppie Harrison | July 24, 2009, 10:57 am
  7. Thanks, everyone!

    Backstory is a tricky beast. I hope this helps.

    Theresa

    Posted by Theresa S. | July 24, 2009, 11:43 am
  8. Theresa-
    Your examples make the complicated issue of “info dump” (as in, how much is too much) easier to understand!

    Thanks,
    Leigh

    Posted by Leigh Court | July 24, 2009, 11:52 am
  9. Thanks, Theresa. Super post.

    Posted by Wes | July 24, 2009, 12:01 pm
  10. Theresa:

    Thank you so much for tackling this question for me. It really helped to see the setup from someone else’s perspective and it really helped me turn the scene in my head to approach it from a different angle. Since submitting this letter to you, I’ve rewritten that first scene 3 times and each time it seems to get narrower and narrower in focus and — I think (knock wood) — is helping me bring out that conflict more while shoving the backstory back.

    The first scene is most definitely between two people — the hero (Joe) and the more villiany character — so it’s definitely action based and not all reflective based. Definitely a scene. :)

    I think the problem I’m having and that you put your finger on immediately was that, initially, my hero wasn’t protesting this deed enough. He seemed too willing to go along with it and I feared the reader wouldn’t like him. Thankfully he’s not doing anything as serious as killing someone, but since his actions relate directly to making the heroine do something she really, really, really doesn’t want to do… I kept thinking, “Pffft, that’s not much of a hero!”

    So now I’m back to square one trying to figure out what said villiany character is using as pressure to make the hero agree to the deal with a “yeah, but…” attitude so my hero still stays heroic and beefs up his conflict. Of course when I do that it pokes holes in the rest of my plot (LOL) but I figure those will be patched over as I go along.

    The sympathy of the reader with the hero is EXACTLY the problem/fear I was having building this story. It’s funny because it’s not like he’s doing anything “huge” — he’s not pillaging the heroine’s company or even lying to her about why he’s there when he shows up. What he is doing is forcing her to go back and lock herself into the very life she swore to herself she’d never ever get trapped in again. So it sets up a “he can’t get his goal if she still gets hers” situation. One can’t what they want without the other losing. So I like the setup and the things at risk for both of them… but his motivation? Yikes. I *still* can’t come up with it. I keep twisting it around and so far nothing has stuck. Your answer has really helped clarify things for me and I think reading it over a few times will help set me on the right track.

    Thanks so much!

    Julie

    Posted by Julie H. | July 24, 2009, 12:10 pm
  11. Thanks so much for this post, Theresa! It is extremely informative and I definitely “get” how to avoid infodump much better. Also, I feel like I don’t necessarily need to work so hard getting my heroine’s very interesting background into the novel I’m writing at the moment… some of it’s there already, and I can just keep dropping bits in.

    Posted by Clare K. R. Miller | July 24, 2009, 3:02 pm
  12. Great post! One of the biggest mistakes I see in novels is too much backstory dumped on page 1 (or dumped on page 1 and continued on page 2, 2.5, 3, etc. lol ). Such a slow opening absolutely loses my interest. The first two elements I need to see are conflict and character, and if either is missing, it’s not a story. Using dialogue to “show” instead of “tell” is so underutilized. Thanks for mentioning it, Theresa!

    Posted by Cameo Brown | July 24, 2009, 3:04 pm
  13. Thanks for this post, Theresa! I’m working on a science fiction romance and trying to figure out how much I need to explain in the opening chapter so the reader will have some idea of what’s going on without giving them an info dump.

    Posted by Susan Macatee | July 24, 2009, 3:24 pm
  14. TERESA–thanks for this information. I’ve struggled with this in three novels which are related–not exactly a series–each story is a stand-alone. But some backstory must be there so the reader will understand the plot and the motivations of the new h/h. After much studying and thinking and rewriting, I think I have the second one nailed. But I won’t know until I hear from the editor! (The first has a release date.) thank you, and I’ll wait for your next post. Celia

    Posted by Celia Yeary | July 24, 2009, 4:52 pm
  15. Thanks so much, Theresa! I often feel like the backstory queen. The first chapters of a book are always the hardest for me. This post helps a lot. I have saved it and will use it as a template in my current and future projects!

    Posted by Linsey Lanier | July 24, 2009, 4:54 pm
  16. When I submitted THE HUNT in contests I had some judges who marked me down because 1) I had a prologue (necessary, IMO, because it showed a past traumatic event that shows my heroine’s motivation in three short pages) and 2) my opening POV was a strong, male secondary character who wasn’t the hero (or villain.)

    My purpose of the prologue was to gain my heroine sympathy because she is very focused and hard-edged because of what happened, and without her actions in context, the readers may have found her unsympathetic and bitchy. My purpose of chapter one was that I wanted a “neutral” third party to “introduce” the readers to the hero and heroine who had very strong feelings for each other, but the primary feelings were anger and resentment for things that happened in the past. If I let my readers see the hero through the eyes of the heroine first, or vice versa, the reader wouldn’t have liked them. But Nick was the perfect POV character because he cared for both and he “saw” the big picture and could understand what both of them did, so the readers could see that there were worthy people.

    Backstory is hard–I think about it alot. It’s one of the most important things to the story because it sets up motivation, but is often used poorly by way of info-dumps. But . . . it’s still crucial. I often use flashbacks, but have *heard* that you *can’t* do it. Fortunately, I never heard that rule before I sold, LOL.

    Posted by Allison Brennan | July 24, 2009, 8:49 pm
  17. Allison, I think the only true “rule” is that we have to keep the reader entertained or otherwise interested. All these other things we talk about aren’t so much rules as they are techniques to keep the reader locked to the page. What you did in that book accomplished that. In the prologue, you gave a dramatic event in three short pages in real story time instead of dribbling it in as backstory. Events narrated in real story time — an actual scene, that is — will almost always read more interesting than backstory, which is usually presented as exposition.

    Flashbacks are a little different because they are usually real scenes, but they’re just not in chronological order. Again, because they’re real scenes, they’ll probably be more entertaining than an info dump.

    Theresa

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | July 24, 2009, 10:19 pm
  18. Hey this is very interesting because I had someone tell me I did an info dump on backstory. I had the hero reciting the way the world they live in(another planet) revolves and the length of the days as a breathing ritual before battle. He recited it to calm his nerves and relax. One critic said it’s back story get rid of it.

    Posted by Kathy Crouch | July 25, 2009, 2:23 am
  19. Oh, jeez. I do this all the time.

    I think it’s because my writing process includes very little prep. I sort of sit down and start telling a story as I learn/create/write it.

    Well, no more! lol. I’m putting the action up front from now on!

    Posted by Christina | July 25, 2009, 5:17 am
  20. Hi Theresa!
    A day late in catching up – great post!
    Murphy

    Posted by Murphy | July 25, 2009, 10:01 am
  21. Congrats on another really good post! Great examples too… really pointed out what was truly missing!!! Many thanks, and I look forward to your next post of this type :-)

    Posted by Dyanne | August 2, 2009, 10:30 pm

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  1. [...] of the best articles I’ve read recently on how to cut backstory from your opening is on Romance University. In that post, Theresa Stevens, Managing Editor at Red Sage recommends using choice, action, and [...]

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