Seven Ways to Wrangle Your Back Story

If you’re like me, you just lo-o-o-ve telling the tale before the story begins. That’s because you care so much about your characters and you can envision where they were when they were three, and you know the whole cast of characters surrounding them at key moments in their lives. These people don’t only live and breathe for you; they’ve got reason for being, and you’re damn well determined to explain that to anybody who’s listening.

But then suddenly, the manuscript is cluttered with flashbacks. It’s dragging with dips back in time. And guess what? Your reader, or your agent, or your editor, is saying to you loud and clear: Here’s Where I Stopped to Rest.

I’ve got seven ways I wrangle my ever-burgeoning back story. Let me know what works for you, Wonder Women, Wonder Men, Wonder Humans & Creatures of Fabulosity!

#1: Back Story Can Be Many Things. Be Flexible.

Don’t define it as full chapters or even a page. Don’t insist on prologues as the only and most obvious place for back story. It can be one sentence, it can be 100, it can be–gasp!–a PHRASE. Yes. Let’s be clear that you can allude to what happened before in your story without making a big deal of it.

See the opening chapter of my latest novel, No Small Thing, at the end of this post, so you can read in bold where I insert bits throughout a present scene of dialogue, whether in summary or mini-flashback sentences, or via the dialogue itself, before and breaking into a couple paragraphs of true back story (scene and summary), and then I return to the main narrative.

My agent, Tara, helped me see that back story carried on far too long in chapter one and that I had to both shorten it and break it up or risk losing my reader.

#2: Do It With Voice.

We won’t notice back story if it’s told with verve, with snark, with anger, with the unique rhythms and diction of a character’s voice and the unique angle of lens. If back story is delivered with a certain point of view, it’s much easier to swallow. Easy for me to say: I prefer to write in first person. But if you’re working the third person, remember that third-person close point of view insists on a careful and direct lens as only the character sees and experiences things. How does the character see their own back story? Remember that as you deliver it.

In other words, if the voice is loud enough, it distracts from the time switch. We don’t care what era we’re in as long as this particular voice keeps telling us the tale.

#3: Ask: Is It Really Important We Go Back in Time?

Sometimes the present just speaks for itself. You don’t always need to hearken back to the original cause, the Prime Mover of someone’s character or fear. It might be better to immerse readers in a full scene. We’re best equipped to ask this question when the whole book’s written, so if I were you, I’d write all the back story, place it wherever you like, and then come back with a big, fat red pen with this question in mind.

#4: Leave Yourself Notes of Yea and Nay.

I’ve got so many questions running through my head when I write, so to not stop the flow, I leave Notes to Self, all the questions about the back story, in various places with yellow highlights. Example: NEED BACK STORY ON DAD’S RELATIONSHIP TO B HERE, or, REDUCE THIS BACK STORY. Just get it all out, then move on, and when you revise, listen to your neon-yellow reminders and that sixth sense you were getting about something missing or something too long.

#5: A Great Scene Cures All.

If you’re determined to take us back in time, do it well. Do it with scene that immerses, that gets the heart racing a little, that makes us live it along with whomever’s taking the journey.

Summary? The “telling” versus “showing” part? It works well if done right with voice and other techniques.

If you don’t know the difference between scene and summary, check out my posts on the key ways to improve both.

Make It Fascinating

Make It Fascinating, Part 2

#6: Worship the Word Count.

When you’re in revision mode, and revisiting your piles of back story (like I am), with a red pen poised like a scythe to wreak much-needed reaping, make it a goal to get the back story down by 50 words or more. Oh, heck, why not 500? Challenge yourself to make it tight as possible.

If you get stuck, see #2 and #5. If you’re doing both of those supremely well, who cares how long it takes to get this part of the story out? (Well, editors and publishing house budgets, or your publishing budget, sure.)

Stand ready to cut hard and unfeelingly at this stage of the process. Remember what the core narrative’s about–the question you ask and attempt to answer–and then let those words go, Marie-Kondo style, out into that good night.

#7  Trust the Process

Sometimes while in an early draft of a novel, it’s tempting for me to stuff back story in and over-explain something, like I don’t trust myself or the reader to “get it.” It’s also tempting to cut all back story in a mass-murder move because you think your story’s suddenly boring and no one will ever keep reading. Here’s a truth: it’s way to early to tell in a first or second draft if this is the case, or at least it is for me.

My process involves really getting to know my characters. They are not pawns in a chess game. They’re people with my goals and plans, sure, goals and plans meant to trouble their waters, but they often surprise me in a new draft what they can do as they seek to be fully human. When I rewrote No Small Thing this year, new scenes appeared to meet the challenge of tightening plot and suspense. Characters replaced one another. And back story got moved all over the place if not deleted entirely. That was I believe my fourth draft of the book (I do lose count) and I’m really glad that a) I did over-explain early on, to understand where Audrey and friends came from and b) I didn’t cut huge sections early on. With enough distance, I was able to cut hard in a later draft and piecemeal back story or remove it entirely.

If you need more meditation on the art of patience while writing, and how I have learned that going “super-slo-mo” is actually okay, check out this post:

Go Super-Slo-Mo Until It’s Time


Need a sample of how I integrate bits of back story in a scene? Here you go.


 No Small Thing, Chapter One Excerpt


“Coach, please! Let me!”

This is my workout before every guys’ basketball game: trotting behind Coach Hale, begging for a place on his bench.


I’ve lost count how many times he’s said that to me.

“But I’m quick, you know I can dodge anything!” I’m huffing as I tail him down the athletic department hallway. “How often does the bench take a hit?”

“Audrey, I said no.”

“Coach Azzi says yes!” I’m Coach Azzi’s “manager.” She lets me sit on the girls’ bench and grab footage and audio. The woman gets me.

Silence as he stomps on to the gym. A former Division II basketball player, Coach Hale is only five-eight, but pure muscle, and strikes fear into the hearts of players with ten inches on him. But not me, nine inches shorter. The guy who hung the hoop in my driveway never scared me because I’ve seen a hammer make him cuss a blue streak. The dude knows I’m athletic, and though I be but little, I am FIERCE.

“Come on, Coach! I’ve got health insurance!”

“It’s a huge liability. NO.”

We’re feet from Athlete’s Alley, the tunnel into Gurney Gym, when I toss today’s Hail Mary: “1500 likes in the last hour, and 300 comments last week on the Threepeat show—

Coach spins around. We almost collide, as in my nose to his chest. “We don’t need the media.”

“It’s my SENIOR YEAR!” I holler.

“Your mom would kill me!” he hollers back, and storms into the gym.

Mom: 25 billion; Audrey: 0. I turn and hit the wall with the side of my fist. After all I do, covering his team—three straight years of amazing highlights, interviews, profiles—he won’t grant me this tiny request? “Dude, you NEED me!” I tell the wall.

That’s the real reason he said no: because my mother, Ellen Powers, says so. The guy who bought me my first hoop also buys the Mom propaganda.

Audrey is petite. Audrey is frail. Audrey is breakable.

When I was born, I wasn’t just a preemie: I was a micro preemie. So raw, barely cooked, my skin was blue, sticky, and gelatinous. At 23 weeks and two days old, I weighed less than one pound, 12 ounces. But I prefer 800 grams because it sounds bigger, and no one in America really knows how much that is.

My skin was so fragile and ready to tear, they had to treat me like a burn patient. The nurses wrapped me in plastic to keep me warm. Instead of Mom, IVs nursed me. They said the chaplain had tears in his eyes when he came to the NICU to baptize me, and that my dad had to leave the room. Those first weeks, no one thought I’d make it. Vegas would have put 5:1 odds against me. Maybe it’s good Mom’s not a sports fan or one to worship stats. Because I certainly wouldn’t have made the draft.



But I Haven’t Been to Graceland

It wasn’t until I figured this out – that I didn’t have to be an expert about something to write it into a story – that I finally really understood why my teachers insisted you had to ‘write what you know.’ Write what you know – not necessarily what you yourself have experienced. What a relief to know I didn’t have to commit a murder to write about one!”
Jan Dunlap

Elvis at Graceland, 1957

“Write what you know” can be a paralyzing rule for authors. It’s a piece of advice that to some implies you must live what you write, or, be very close to events as they happen.

Then, there are those historical fiction folks–you know those researching types? They love being locked in a musty library or enslaved online. They’re special because they have to find out what they–and we–want to know about a certain period in time.

But today with easy-to-use sites like Wikipedia, Google Books, and just about any search engine, the remotest author can be in the thick of things unknown. I, for example, can tour Graceland and write about it as if I were there. “Write what you know” is really “Write what you research.”

As I revised HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT, I had my doubts about “traveling” where I had not been, but I knew I wanted Wendy and her new best friend, Tanay, to walk the rooms of The King. And while I spent time at the Wikipedia entry and on the Graceland website, I found TripAdvisor particularly helpful for my mission.

The scene needed Wendy and Tanay to take the audio tour and see interesting specifics the way these characters would. The notes from travelers did just that–raise to the fore the most intriguing and unique elements of Graceland.

Of course, as a writer or traveler you always reel with the stark contrast of reviews (“It was the best of times!” vs. “It was the worst of times!”) But overall, you get little gems of setting–the temperature, the size of crowds, the colors that leapt out, and all the details that stayed with the traveler. My favorite was one traveler’s quoting of another disappointed visitor: “Long live Elvis and his gift shops,” as apparently every display points the tourist to buy, buy, buy. I grabbed line after line from various reviews, dumped them in my manuscript, and then began to rewrite and weave a tapestry of my own visit.

What’s fun is seeing how voice informs the shortest travel review. I also had the girls stop at Earnestine and Hazel’s for a Soul Burger, so check out the variety of personalities and attitudes that characterize these reviews.

So for those of us who aren’t historical fiction writers or nonfiction gurus and who don’t make heavy research the first step of a writing process, I’ve found some rules to keep the process from overwhelming.

  1. Keep in mind your scene goals. There are many things that could catch the eye of a Graceland visitor, but I decided just the mansion and gravesites were needed for my scene goals. What does your character want in this scene? What are the obstacles to that want? After taking a first pass at research and integrating the details into the story, go back and revise for that scene goal. (Which is why I don’t over-research something; I fear I’ll get lost in the details on the first draft and never get back to my characters.) Like Elmore Leonard says in his ten rules for writing, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
  2. Not everything relates, so don’t over-research for the first draft. This is a restatement of rule #1. But for authors, it must be said. We see connections everywhere. Everything has thematic possibilities. So the slightest detail about Elvis insisting that Graceland be stocked with banana pudding, Sucrets (antibiotic version), and coconut at all times may not be relevant. (Though I did keep the banana pudding.) So this is why I spent a limited amount of time taking my “tour,” and then I backed off and wrote the scene as best I could. It’s possible the scene could get cut in this process of working with an agent. 
  3. Paraphrase. If you are going to borrow lines from even TripAdvisor, a site where no random tourist will ever hunt you down for copyright lawsuits, follow the rule of no plagiarism. I always taught my high school students: a) change 50% of the words to synonyms and b) rearrange the order. So if you grab a 10-word sentence, replace 5 of those words and reorder them. Then the details become your own.
  4. Stay calm: the research and writing don’t have to be perfect at the first pass. We want to be authentic, we want to be honest, we don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about things we don’t know. But when one can’t afford a trip to Memphis right now, take heart: there’s a lot online to peruse, there’s a lot of wisdom floating out there, and if you take your time to read, select, copy and paste, and paraphrase you’ll find that suddenly your manuscript will fill up with options. 

I still want to go to Graceland. I did, after all, obsess on Elvis for several months when he died. I claim early-in-my-life if somewhat late fanhood.

On August 16, 1977, my family and I were traveling through France. The radio chatter–“vraiment, incroyable, bah si si! The King, Elvis, est mort…” kept coming at my parents who were new to learning French. Finally my mom said, “Something must have happened to Elvis.”

At 8, almost 9, I had no idea who the man was, but once she showed me her Elvis records, I became an obsessive fan. I fell in love with his face and swore the eyes on the album cover followed me wherever I went in the room. The record player spun daily with his voice; I could sing every line to “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Wooden Heart,” and “All Shook Up.” (Check out the “Don’t Be Cruel” video for some shots of Memphis.)

Keep writing, researching, seeking. Don’t let fear of the unknown paralyze you. There’s a way through the writer’s traveling maze with our personal versions of GPS and travel guides.

Filed Under: Elvis, goals, Graceland, research, scene  

Bad Cafe Behaviors–Bad!

I promised in my last post that going forth into the world would soon yield someone, anyone, making you mad, and that would manifest as writing material.

Tonight I sat in a cafe and found three things that might spark a good scene, and by scene, I mean piece of fiction or a fight:

  1. The man sitting behind me coughing at volume 11 with no predictability–spastic eruptions ruffling the back of my hair. I waited till he left for the restroom to change my seat. When he returned, he grabbed his things and left. Exquisite timing, sir. You’re gone, yet no doubt your pathogens still coat the back of my head.
  2. The mother who let her nine year-old child peer at me, uninterrupted, for a good minute. It didn’t help the child observed me like someone trying to identify an alien life form. This same child then gave the adult a tour of a mathematical computer game. I wonder if they sell a Social Skills Game where folks help their children and themselves learn the expiration date on staring.
  3. The barista impersonating a trumpet and breaking randomly into lyrics such as “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” I’d need inspiration, too, clearing tables left cluttered with books patrons didn’t have class enough to buy or return to shelves. I’d also want a good song to help me pass the time. But earbuds, man, and inner monologue; two AWESOME ideas. 
Insert misanthropic writer and you have your scene. But move the action out of my writerly head and get someone to take a stand, teach some manners, or belt out a competing song. Let things get dicey and way off track when someone does the unthinkable in a cafe. 
Finish the story for me. Pick your pet peeve of the three, or invent your own. Tell me what I ought to have done had I the wit, the insanity, or the gall to make a scene. 
Filed Under: cafes, inspiration, irritation, scene