On Backstories, Mirrors and Shards

I have a terrible time with backstories as I write my novels. Not coming up with them, oh no. I write detailed, lovely backstories, especially for my main characters. In fact, when I began this second book in the current series, I went nuts the first day. Six thousand words nuts, only to suddenly pull my head out of my… manuscript… and recognize that it was all backstory. I essentially did a 6k word writing exercise to get to know my main character. What could I do? I laughed, shook my head and put the 6k words aside for reference as I restarted the WIP.

As I write the WIP, I find myself digressing into telling backstory. Sometimes I discover I’m in a nebulous showing of the backstory. Is it necessary? Occasionally. Is it necessary at that exact point in the story? Occasionally. Did I mention I have a real problem with backstories?

Someone said a thing on Twitter within the last few days that has inspired me. (If you know the source, please let me know, either by comment here or directly to @jessrosenbooks on Twitter.) The imagery used has touched me and clarified what has been a snarled issue for me. I paraphrase:

Your backstory should be like a mirror. Shatter it and slip slivers of it into the story as you write it.

Isn’t that marvelous? In one swoop, the writer identified how little backstory is actually necessary within a story as well as how to convey it to the reader.

I face a challenge in my WIP. It’s second in a series set in a fantasy world. There’s a different narrator in each of the first person books. A certain amount of backstory is necessary. How much? Less than I’ve been writing in. I’ll find the balance with the help of the imagery above.

I’ve written since I was a kid. I never faced down the scary world of publication. Deciding to take it on this time is making me learn that my typical style of storytelling is all well and good, clever stories, but not written as well as could be. I love what I’m writing now – when I remember the rules. It’s so much better than it was. Learning how to handle backstory is just another big lesson along the way.


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5 thoughts on “On Backstories, Mirrors and Shards

  1. uninvoked July 21, 2009 at 2:55 pm Reply

    For the first draft, don’t worry so much about rules. If you continue to edit yourself over and over again you will never finish. Get that draft done even if you know as you write the last ugly words its the worst thing you’ve ever written. Only after it is done and you’ve let it rest for a month or two will you truly be able to sort the good from the bad.

    I ran into this same problem with my noveling blog, Uninvoked. I got half way through and kept wanting to go back and change things. At least now on the third or fourth edit I’m not embarrassed to have it in public view.


    • Jessica Rosen July 21, 2009 at 3:44 pm Reply

      So very right. In fact, after I wrote that, I made the decision to get back in the saddle and move on from my third time through the first couple of chapters. Already two more chapters down and forward motion!

      I love the editing and rewriting process now that I know what I’m doing. Moving on from “ugly writing” should be easier than it is as a result. I still double-think myself too much. Thanks for the kick in the pants. Getting affirmation is always a good thing.

      Looking forward to taking a look at your blog,
      Jessica Rosen


  2. Nathan H. July 21, 2009 at 5:55 pm Reply

    I like that twitter imagery. Good post.


    • Jessica Rosen July 25, 2009 at 6:25 am Reply

      Hey, Nathan. Glad that might work for you. It was one of those posts that had to get out of my head so I could get past it. Such a lovely imagery, I wish I could recall who said it so I could give that person credit for it.

      Take care,
      Jessica Rosen


  3. Carolyn Yalin July 31, 2009 at 3:03 pm Reply

    Good post. I included it in my Weekly-wrap up blog, hope that’s okay.


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