January 24, 2020

No Cold Mashed Potatoes: Crafting Effective Backstory

By Linda S. Clare @Lindasclare

When I sent the first pages of my first novel to a well-known author, I wasn’t prepared for her feedback. “Your opening has way too much backstory.” From that moment, I was determined to master backstory techniques.

Many writers fear backstory, aka flashbacks. Confusion and slow pacing are just two of the backstory problems which can sink fiction, but used wisely, it can heighten tension, deepen character and provide motivation. How can you know if your backstory enhances or drags down your story?
It’s all in the mashed potatoes.

Imagine your scene features a character who sits down at a banquet table, and is served a mound of steaming, buttery, mouth-watering mashed potatoes. This character scoops up a forkful of potatoes, ready to savor them.

But as she guides her fork to take a bite, her mind reels back (please don’t write this phrase). Fork still in midair, she remembers Grandma’s mashers from Sunday dinners past. As a girl, our character loved Gram’s mashed potatoes, couldn’t wait for Sunday dinner where she’d ask for seconds and thirds. Our character was so fond of those potatoes that Grandpa called her Spud. Our character gets a little misty thinking about her grandparents and those special taters.

What’s all this potato talk to do with backstory?

When her mind reeled back, the real-time action stopped. While the character rhapsodizes about Gram’s mashed potatoes, her fork hangs in midair with the spuds cooling. And the longer the memory, the colder those potatoes become. Cold mashed potatoes equal readers who may forget the real-time action, get confused or both.

Backstory can help develop character, motivation and tension, but every writer must weigh the benefit of flashback with the real risk of losing a reader. Effective backstory rests mainly on two tests:
·         Need to Know: The info in the backstory is vital to the story at that point. If so, it can be inserted in a scene without overpowering the real-time action (and thus, chilling one’s potatoes).
·         Weaving: The backstory is brief enough or woven in and through so that readers can glide easily in and out of the real-time scene. (potatoes don’t have time to get cold).

Craft healthy backstory by using sensory details to go in and out of backstory. Both the real-time scene and the memory above involved mashed potatoes. They create a common touchstone to link two separate times. If you’re concerned about the length of any given backstory, try using what I call The Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three helps writers remember to touch back on the real-time scene after three sentences of backstory. Toward the opening of fiction or memoir, less backstory is common.  Literary or mainstream fiction might tolerate more backstory than a fast-paced suspense novel.

I don’t know if I’ve mastered backstory yet, but I try not to let my mashed potatoes grow cold.


"No Cold Mashed Potatoes: Crafting Effective Backstory" Linda Clare (Click to Tweet)

Linda S. Clare loves to write and loves to help others with their writing journeys. Although she’s an Arizona native, she loves living in the Pacific Northwest, where the rain makes for great writing weather. She’s the author of five nonfiction books, including Prayers for Parents of Prodigals (Jan 2020, Harvest House Publishers), and two novels, The Fence My Father Built and A Sky without Stars. For more than a decade Linda taught novel and memoir writing at Lane Community College and she also works as Expert Writing Advisor for George Fox University. Linda presents regularly at conferences around the West, and also individually coaches writers. In her free time, she gathers dandelions for a pet lop-eared bunny and tends to her two senior cats.

1 comment:

  1. How timely. I have decided to combine two mystery series and have the 4 characters work together. I fell into the backstory dilemma because readers of one series might not have tried the other so don't know their background...and vice versa. I am aware of the awkward brake skidding when I spend too much time introducing each character/couples background. I don't want to bog the story down. It's a balance between boring the reader and enticing them to read previous books in both series to get up to date. When done I will have to let someone who has not read any of my books read this new one to see if she is confused/bored/reached for the glass of wine. Definitely a balancing act!