How to Work With Character Backstory

One of the questions I find myself discussing all the time is the issue of character backstory. When do we add it? How much do we add? How much is too much? Too little? Are flashbacks okay?

character backstory
Weave in character backstory in a way that engages readers.

How Much Character Backstory to Use

The bare minimum of backstory that you should include in your novel or picture book or memoir is this: enough to get readers plugged into the character. Maybe that amounts to ZERO backstory, if you start right away with some kind of conflict or action.

Aim for minimum viable product (from the business world), the leanest version of your character who can possibly fly. Maybe we learn one or two things about the character via telling, as is sometimes what happens at the beginning of a picture book. Maybe we don’t get any backstory at all and concentrate on present action. Maybe we get a piece of context (it’s the first day of school, the character just moved to a new place, they’re off to a practice to impress a college scout), and the rest is filled in over time.

What you categorically want to avoid is a big block of character backstory or flashback right away. My advice is always this: if you find yourself leaving the present moment to fill in backstory (even short backstory, like, “we’ve been best friends since kindergarten”), you may not be starting in the right place.

The key questions you want to answer with any backstory you include are: “What makes this character tick, and why should I care about them?”

When to Use Character Backstory

Your first few chapters or scenes should be action-heavy (with some nice introductory conflict) to get agents, publishers, and readers into your story. Once you feel that is established, you can start weaving in backstory or flashback starting in the second or third chapters. Why is the character’s situation XYZ? What is the significance of their objective and motivation? Which characters do we need to know more about in order to understand the present conflict?

BUT! Remember to keep up the balance of action and information, a crucial idea in keeping your pacing lean and mean and compelling. Whenever you give us a scene or paragraph of backstory, surround it with action, scene, and dialogue on either side.

Readers only perceive a story to be backstory-heavy and slow-moving when there aren’t injections of action and conflict to give the dense information a much-needed “lift.”

How to Fill in the Rest

Another thing to consider when you wonder how much character backstory to use, where, and when, is that you don’t have to use absolutely everything that you’ve developed. You may have done your homework and discovered where your character went to middle school and who their first crush was and how they like to relax after a long day. Some of this could wind up in your story, but some of it is for your edification only.

Sometimes, you will find that you need more depth. In that case, whole flashbacks of scenes and memories that not only flesh out your protagonist but the other characters in the story will become useful. But make sure these pull a lot of weight and deliver a lot of insight. The fewer and tighter your flashbacks, the better.

On the whole, it’s perfectly okay to leave elements on the “cutting room floor” as you prioritize action and conflict over heavy character backstory, especially at the beginning of your story.

Your opening pages are crucial for agent, publisher, and reader engagement. Hire me as your book editor for a Submission Package Edit, and I will give you insight into your query, synopsis, and first pages.

How to Write Action Scenes

More writers should be wondering how to write action scenes. Because the more action sequences I read, the more I’m convinced that they’re the Achilles’ heel of even the most seasoned writer (with the exception of thriller writers, of course). Lovely and agile prose sometimes tends to fall apart when an action sequence is called for.

how to write an action sequence, writing action, pacing, plot
How to write an action sequence even this guy would be proud of.

How to Write Action Scenes With the Movies in Mind

This is a difficult situation for writers who have to contend with an action movie world. Cinematography can do things that prose can’t. It can show us five quick moves from a martial arts sequence in the space of one second.

Take this example from page 83 of SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT*, a perfectly lovely book that came out with HarperCollins in 2008, written by Derek Landry, a screenwriter, as it happens:

He screamed and let her go and staggered back, cursing, and Stephanie rolled off the car and ran to the Bentley.

Give that sentence a coffee break, it’s been working too hard!

Action Sequence Writing Needs to Flow

As you can see, there’s a bit of conjunctivitis going on (and no, I’m not talking about pink eye, I’m talking about an overload of conjunctions). The author’s “and” addiction sends way too many images shooting at the reader and we can’t quite make a clear picture of the action. Put this sentence in a group of similar sentences and we’ll get whiplash.

Tips on How to Write Action Scenes

This is a reminder to check back on all of your action sequence chapters and run through these revision tips:

  1. Clarity. If you hadn’t written it, would you be able to tell what’s going on? So much, well, action happens in an action sequence that clarity is of the utmost importance.
  2. Consistency. Just because they’re in an action sequence, characters should still act and speak like themselves. They should not develop any surprising but convenient powers or skills in the heat of the action.
  3. Sentence variety. The heavy emphasis on description in an action sequence usually means that style takes a backseat. For example, you get an entire paragraph of sentences that start the same: “He grabbed his gun… He volleyed over the wall… He slid into the driver’s seat… He skidded to a halt to smell the roses…” Make sure your sentences have structural variety. Your readers will get bored with all the “Subject verb” construction, or of any other sentence tic that you develop.
  4. Brevity. Even if your plot calls for the longest action sequence in the world, make sure there are pauses in between bouts of action. Break it up with some snappy dialogue, let the character take a breather. No one can be an action machine 24/7, that includes the reader whose heartbeat has been (hopefully) racing for the last ten pages. Let them take a rest. Some readers are great at reading action sequences, other gloss over them (I have to admit, I skimmed most of the Quidditch sequences and the big finale fights in the HARRY POTTER series, because I am just not that great at reading action scenes and keeping all those pieces and images in my head.)
  5. Believability. Alas, every action sequence must come to an end sometime. Make sure yours ends in a believable way. No “how convenient!” scrapes. No deus ex machina**. And don’t be afraid to let something go wrong or to let someone get hurt. There are always winners AND losers in an action sequence. Give us a taste of both.

There you have it. Now go forth and blow our action-movie-addled minds!

* This awkward action sequence aside, you should definitely read SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT or any of its sequels if you write MG. It’s a great mix of action and adventure that appeals to girls and boys, realistic and fantasy lovers alike.

* Latin: “god from the machine.” This term refers to “a plot device in which a person or thing appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty” (nice, articulate definition from Wikipedia). This means that if something feels like a “cop out” in your book…if ane scape is too easy or too good to be true…your reader will probably think so, too, and you’ll lose credibility and authenticity points with them.

Plot and action can be hard to master in a vacuum. Hire me as your manuscript consultant, and you’ll never write alone.