Backstory: Keeping It Where It Belongs

Write a chapter.  Write a second chapter and realize that something in the first one needs to be changed.  Rewrite the first one.

Tired of this particular process and the limited progress that went along with it, I decided to outline the beats in my cozy before writing any more.  And that’s when I made a discovery.

I hadn’t started at the beginning. The three chapters I had so carefully crafted were all backstory.

This discovery came about when I paged through Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. I was having troubles figuring out some of my beats and needed to see how another mystery had done it.  Knowing that this would be a problem, Brody had included the outlines of several titles in her book.

As I looked at the outline in front of me, I saw where in the book the murder or other crime needs to occur.  What?  I was already to that point in my outline.  Then I realized that my outline started much earlier in the character’s story than it should have.   I had included all of the backstory that made her who she is at the outset of my mystery.

Sigh.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, backstory is what takes place before your story.  It might be the events that make your character judgmental or wishy-washy.  It could be why he isn’t trusting or why she doesn’t want to go to college with her friends.

As the author, you need to know all of this.  But your reader doesn’t want all that baggage even if they need to know some of it.  Instead of starting with it, you need to dole it out a bit at a time, fact by fact, throughout the story you’ve chosen to tell.

How?  Some people do it through flashbacks but flashbacks slow things down and can be confusing.

Other times you can do it by just dropping in a fact here and there.  “X is why I came back to town/missed prom/don’t have a license.” Backstory is like confetti – you should scatter these facts with a light hand because no one wants a face full all at once.

Which is why I am starting my new outline much, much later in the story.

–SueBE

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