Pairing Backstory with Current Action: One Way to Save Your Credibility as an Author

Here’s some new: I’ve been editing three short stories to share with you lovely folks. When they’re through they’ll be free, but here is a tale about one of them.

I really love beginning of this particular story as it was when I first wrote it. I had imagery, setting, and clever reveal sentence, and the word “carambola”. Too bad I HAD TO CHANGE IT.

I broke a little when I realized that the entire entry paragraph was…da, duh, duuuuummmm….backstory.

As much as I loved, and I mean LOVED, those opening lines, these lovely words belonged to an experience in my MCs past, not the present issue she is currently dealing with.

You should know, I’m not an advocate of alleviating backstory totally; I believe that instances in our own “backstory” as human beings fuel current actions/decisions we make today.

This makes them über important to us, and since our characters are human beings (or at least they should be) explaining aspects of their history is necessary for the reader to understand the character to the fullest. Your reader shouldn’t have to guess about why your character, for example, is afraid of water. They should be told that she almost drowned in the ocean as a small child. See how that works?

BUT

Nobody likes to be talked down to and, sometimes, that’s how telling backstory feels. I read fiction to entangle myself into someone else’s life. Total immersion. Yet some backstory is presented like a textbook. I cannot entangle or immerse myself in a textbook. (If you can, you might be a robot.)

In a similar vein, I don’t like to be tricked as a reader, and if I would have left the first paragraph as is, I would have inadvertently tricked my readers with my misplaced story beginning. I would have started with a carambola and changed, rather quickly, to another to a bus stop before readers could control their salivary glands.

As a writer, I want my readers to trust me to tell them a good story.

We can lose credibility if we don’t take care in telling the story we are meant to tell.

So, a fellow writer posted in a Facebook writing group something to the effect of…

My MCs past is very important but I don’t know how to tell it without info dumping. She has depression/anxiety because of certain past events but the reader won’t understand the Now without knowing the Then.

My response piggy-backed (funny mental picture) another’s and went a little like this:

What about negative self-reflection? You get backstory but from an unreliable narrator, could be interesting. From my experience with depression, instances in my “backstory” repeat over and over, along with the emotions connecting them, like being slapped in the face by shame/regret every few minutes when it’s on a roll. Maybe “backstory” is fighting through rounds of these emotional battles created from a current stimulus. Sometimes I win; sometimes I lose. Maybe MC could, too?

The writer liked the idea, and I started to wonder why this tactic might work. This is what I decided:

Pairing backstory (past experiences) with a current action helps make the information digestible to your reader.

It keeps the reader in the story you’re telling instead of making him/her mentally halt all forward progress and rearrange the time line in his/her head.

*Important Note* This is not an exclusive rule. In Holly Black’s White Cat, there was a present day stimulus that triggered a flashback. The story completely halted, switched to the past for backstory, before returning to present day. This worked for Black’s book, so there’s a text to study if you feel the need. Also, it’s a fabulous book.

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Oh! Also, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder. The flashbacks are well done here, too, and this story is aces.

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Okay, that’s what I’ve been thinking about today! How about you?

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