Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How to Insert Backstory without Info-dumps

It's been a weird few months. Cold, hot, cold again. It's currently 58 right now, with a nice breeze, and everything is covered in a sheet of fine, yellow pollen. My head hurts and my eyes keep watering despite Allegra. Everything is so beautiful I can't get over how fortunate I am to live in Eyecandyland. The mountains are green and snow-capped, the meadows are lush with grass and everywhere you look trees are unfurling new leaves and covered in flowers. It makes me wonder how early man got along without family-sized meds from Costco and a houseful of HEPA filters.

I was fortunate enough to get a question recently, all thanks to Margaret Carroll for letting me post it.

Hi Jodi, I have a question. You wrote: Backstory is important because that's where the motivation is. Backstory gets mined each time the protagonist slams into conflict, because conflict is simply two motivations fighting it out for dominance. Does this mean a good yardstick for when/how to insert backstory is little bits each time a character faces a conflict and has to choose how to act (or just after)? I really struggle with this. I am the world's most linear thinker. And also guilty of using backstory way way way too much. Thank you!

Yes definitely. I wouldn't do it each time, because then it would be obvious, but I'd consider it "an opportunity" to make the decision because it would add backstory in the most natural way. And for that think of peanut butter?

Maybe a kid is going to school and there's a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. He's new, and he's not fitting in even though he really wants to fit in. So there he is, sitting at the table with his classmates, and there's this peanut butter sandwich.

Maybe he doesn't like peanut butter (for reasons in backstory (that you aren't going to mention because it would be an info dump or you just want him to refuse the sandwich to further the plot which is that he's going to be alienated)), so he pushes the plate away and says, "I'm not hungry."

That's pretty simple and allows the story to move on.

But if you use it as an opportunity to show his conflict and motivation (his motivation to fit in by eating the sandwich)


His motivation to avoid his brother's fate (his brother choked on a peanut butter sandwich that got stuck to the roof of his mouth and stopping breathing, now he has brain damage (his motivation to aoivd his brother's fate or self-preservation))

equals conflict

 ...which can be shown with a "little" bit of backstory, and a good rule of thumb here (not an "always rule" but just a general rule of thumb) would be "whatever triggers the conflict (the fight between the two motivations)" THEN a sentence or two of backstory formatted as internal thought.

The starting (understood) motivation, which is that he wants to fit in. Your reader should know this from how the story and scene is set up to this point.

There was a peanut butter sandwich on every plate. (this is the trigger that activates the conflict) His brother had almost died eating a peanut butter sandwich (this is the kid's backstory). He'd been brain damaged for almost five years now/he still couldn't sit up without a wheelchair/he'd been in the hospital ever since (this is why it's important to him)

With the implication being that he doesn't want to end up like his brother (his conflicting motivation)

...and then just go on with the scene. Maybe he pushes it away or looks around and notices everyone is looking at him and wants to throw up, or he gets up and runs away, or something. Whatever you'd like.

* the backstory didn't break the flow of the scene
* it was natural
* it put his conflict on display without explaining it.
* it draws the reader into the story (because they're trying to figure the kid out), so the story hooks them
*  and best of all, it keeps everything tight

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