Backstory, part trois – How the hell do you deal with this stuff anyway?

I'm an engineer, it was only a matter of time before I started talking about Story Engineering.  (Image courtesy of Larry Brooks)

I’m an engineer, it was only a matter of time before I started talking about Story Engineering. (Image courtesy of Larry Brooks)

Hi, and welcome back. I’ve had another busy week culminating in the AGM for SpecFicNZ, a science fiction group for New Zealanders. the AGM was held at ‘Au Contraire’, the New Zealand science fiction and fantasty convention held here at Wellington.

Let’s get straight into the metrics:

Page Count For The Week: 27.

Not too bad, held back a bit by the podcast (which I’ll talk about later) but overall not too bad.

Total Editing Page Count: 157.

Less than one hundred pages to go. Woop woop! Right in the middle of a big, and freakin’ awesome, set piece of the novel. Coming up to a ‘f_ck yeah’ moment. And if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry, I’ll cover it off in the next few weeks.

Updated Total Page Count: 256

Right now I’m fleshing out a major scene in the novel. There is a high level of suspense involved and this means slowing things down, among other things, so with this second pass I’m trying to get the balance right. Alpha readers will tell me if I have done the job right or not.

Updated Word Count: 123,624

A little bit bigger than last week. There is definitely a trend here. I’m going to make a judgement for the record. I reckon I’ll finish this edit and the total word count will be 127,000 ish, give or take 500 words. That is my decree. Let’s see what happens. . .

And so here is the weekly progress chart for “EDITING – PHASE 2:”


157/ 256 (61.3%)


Repaired Faux-Pas of the Week:

This is a slap-me-in-the-face-for-being-a-dumb-arse kind of faux pas.

I had this scene on a space station and all these things were happening as if the space station had gravity. So I started fixing it. Then I realised ‘wait a minute: this station is rotating. It HAS gravity!’ So I found that big dirty ‘undo’ button and removed twenty minutes of work.


Edititation of the Week

A fun one this week:


______ were firing at him. Robert fired back as he ran. Straight into the _______. Laser beams erupted from his weapons. Bodyies fell away before him. A shot glanced over his shoulder and he dropped to the ground, still firing, firing, firing until there was no one left.
He let out a gasp, struggled his legs out from under a body then ran back to the torus.


__________ were firing at him. Robert fired back as he ran, straight into them. Laser beams erupted from the deathwreakers. He could see faces, eyes wide with the thousand yard stare, or eyes vacant from death, mouths parting in surprise as they died, or curled downward, screaming as they took shots at him. Bodies fell before him. A shot glanced over his shoulder and he dropped to the ground, still firing, firing, firing until there was no one left to shoot at.
A body had fallen over his legs. He tried to sit up, kicking and pushing the body back. More footsteps sounded from the around the main corridor. He twisted back and forth looking for a gun. A deathwreaker lay just out of reach. He kicked and bucked harder, clawing forward an inch at a time. His fingers stretched out, brushing the gun with his fingernails . . .

Commander's Log Cover art

Commander’s Log Podcast

Episode 8 is coming out tomorrow or the day after that and its a special one.

Firstly its been around a month since the last podcast so it has a lot to catch up on.

Secondly I’m talking to a fellow Elite writer about a whole manner of things, which was a really fun conversation, and thirdly I’ve opened it up to the masses: This one is packing cameos left right and centre. Let’s play a game called ‘pick the voices’ Do you know which Elite community members are in the podcast? Pick them all correctly and you’ll win . . . something, maybe.

Thanks to everyone who has volunteered to be a voice on the podcast. I’ll get through all of you, and I know it’ll be great fun having you all onboard.


Last week I talked more about back story and what it means to a story, how it provides context for the actions of characters and provides more depth to their personalities.
Backstory helps take characters from two dimensional ‘cardboard cut out’ characters to three dimensional ’rounded’ characters. Larry Brooks (author of Story Engineering) writes that backstory provides a sense to character actions. When the chips are down, people revert to their true selves and this true self evolves from a person’s backstory. He calls it a ‘second dimension’ of characterization. Thus you could say backstory provides the psychological validation for a character’s actions. Therefore, it is best to know the backstory of a character if you are going to accurately portray them in any situation, but especially in conflict, which is what fiction is all about.

As an author though, knowing backstory and sharing backstory in the novel are two different things. As I mentioned last week, the big question is:


Below is some advice I have come across in my writerly travels.

Larry Brooks uses the iceberg principle: Show 10% of the character’s backstory. A good rule of thumb perhaps but a direct ratio like that is dependent on how much back story you develop and pays no respect to whether the backstory you develop is useful to the story or not. You should only put in backstory that is relevant to the events of the novel.

L.K Hill has three strategies:
1) Unfold little by little:
This means that you should not dump large amounts of back story on the reader at any one time, more a sentence here, a reference there, giving the back story in drips and drabs.

2)Tie the backstory into the stories theme
What are you trying to do in the story? How does the characters past illuminate this goal? Eg if the theme of your novel is freedom then a characters backstory that pertains to freedom should be included and tied in as part of the ongoing theme instead of just a ‘random nugget’ of backstory.
If there is no connection between the characters history and what they are doing in the story then perhaps they are not the right character for the novel. This link makes a novel stronger.

3) make the backstory do more than one thing

Examples include provide motivation, explain character emotions, etc. This ties into 2) above, but like all parts of a story, backstory should pull its weight. If a character makes a decision (whether it is a surprise or not) we should have some backstory to support it. I.e if he does something heroic then backstory showing heroism would be a useful addition. Conversely, backstory showing a distinct lack of heroism is a great counterpoint to an act of heroism as it makes the reader sit up and take notice. (Of course this has to be done skillfully so that it doesn’t come across as an inconsistency – and that is a whole other blog entry!)

Margie Lawson teaches that you should imagine the backstory of your character written on a big window of glass. Drop the glass on the ground and it will shatter into a thousand pieces. Take one of these pieces and insert in the novel. Take another piece and insert that in somewhere else. Have the backstory sprinkled throughout the whole manuscript so it doesn’t get noticed.

What do I do?

I make it up as I go along.

I complete my planning for my novel and then I intimately know the emotional arc of my main characters. From this I know what growth they undergo and what parts of their history relates to this growth and the plot of the novel. I add in extra backstory that adds value in other ways, such as creating empathy, etc. Knowing then what I want to put in I work out where to put it by asking myself this simple question:

“Does the reader absolutely, positively need to know this exact detail at this exact moment?”

If the answer is yes, I put it in. If the answer is ‘no’ then I leave it out.


Sure. On paper anyway.


Thanks team. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll have a few midweek updates happening this week, including the podcast so if you haven’t already, sign up for updates delivered straight to your inbox by entering your email address to the sign up box at the top right. Cheers, and see you next time.



2 responses to “Backstory, part trois – How the hell do you deal with this stuff anyway?

  1. Great stuff. I’m always keen to see how the novel is progressing and to read any writing tips. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s