Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Last weeks Barnyard Backstory 101 post gave you a visual of the reasons a writer should avoid dumping entire paragraphs into the beginning of the book. It ain't pretty.

Backstory within the first chapter slows the pacing of the story. Ideally, you should dole out backstory by raising questions. And one or two well placed questions will pique the curiosity of your reader making them want to continue reading. And isn't that what this is all about?

Since we're not in a rush here, let me give you an example of what I mean. In the first book of a new series of historical romances I'm working on, I needed to let the reader know that my hero's chosen employment as a sheepherder had not been entirely voluntary. Rather than stopping the story to explain the *backstory* that led my hero to the lonely life of sheepherding, I did this:

As always, the silence both soothed and made him restless. He loved the peace of the sheepherder, but hated the isolation. Yet it was the path he had chosen. Had been forced to choose. And he had only himself to blame for it.

What does this paragraph tell you about the man, and what question does it raise?

Person/s posting a comment that is closest to the correct answer will win a copy of my newest historical romance, or one of my two cozies--your choice. I'm all about choices!


  1. Hmmm...I would say this paragraph tells me that there was some outside factor that caused the man to have to be a sheepherder. He chose the occupation supposedly, but he had an unavoidable reason for doing so. And do I detect a sense of guilt, too?

    I guess this raises the question: what did he do wrong that forced him to be a lone sheepherder? He doesn't seem to want to be alone, so could his guilt have to do with a woman? (We are talking historical romance here, right?) ;)

    OK, I think I'm really rambling. I'm not sure how specific we're supposed to be, but I thought I'd throw out a few thoughts anyway! :)

    I guess I'll be moo-ving on now...


  2. Oops! Forgot my e-mail address:


    If I were a sheepherder, I would say, "My baa-d!" ;)


  3. Sheep humor! Love it. Also loved the why you dissected the paragraph and really thought things through. I can't say too much though until others get their chance. . . Stay tuned!

  4. Ah...bad choices. This poor hero made a choice that forced him down a path he didn't want. But what was it? Will he be forced to continue this road or will he somehow break free from his mistakes (and their consequences)?

    This is a perfect example of setting up a story with enough questions to leave the reader wondering what happened, and if (or how) the main character will break free. Good job, Sandra.

    Now, my question is, does this actually compel the reader to keep reading...or is it just frustrating and make the reader want to skip ahead?

    I confess...I've done both. Sometimes, I just GOTTA know what happened! :-)

  5. S. Dionne Moore,

    Thought you might appreciate that. ;) Hope any of what I said makes sense...I was just kind of writing down my rambling thoughts. Can't wait to hear what you have to say about your own work once others stop by!


    That is an interesting question about readers! I confess that usually what makes me skip ahead is when I just haven't been drawn into the story and I might be about to give up OR (and this is most often the case in a good book) I'm just dying to know what romantic scene is coming next. ;) Yes, I know...but when I know I have something really romantic coming up, I have more anticipation and a stronger desire to hang in there.

    Oh, dear...more of my ramblings! I apologize to the both of "ewe." (More sheep humor.) :)


  6. Amber, You have GOT to stop this psychological tendency toward Barnyard humor. It's not good for you and might result in Hoof in Mouth disease, aka: rambling.


    Is it catching?

  7. Lisa, old buddy, old pal. You bring out an excellent point. How does a writer engage a reader to the point where the reader doesn't skip ahead to discover the answer? Does that mean the character(s) has not engaged the reader? Or does it mean that the other story components: narrative, dialogue, pacing, etc., are lacking?

    *she strokes her beard in deep thought*

    Wait a minute. I did *not* say that. I don't have a beard. At least, I don't now. I shaved this morning.

  8. I think that something caused him to be pushed into it, such as a family tradition of sheepherders. My question is why, what path would he have chosen?


  9. S. Dionne Moore,

    I don't know if it's catching. Why do you ask? Do you really think I'm "ram"-bling too much? ;) Because that would be "baa"-d, wouldn't it?

    OK, I guess I should stop now... But it's so much fun!


  10. You know, hanging around with you gals makes me wanna breakout into "The Farmer in the Dell." LOL!

    I ewesd...ahem...used to be terrible about skipping ahead in a book. Now, I'm more patient. I let the story develop slowly in my head. But if a novel raises too many unanswered questions...well...that's just frustrating to me. So while backstory is NEVER mean to explain to the reader, it does help them understand a little bit of the character's history. So how soon is too soon to share some of the backstory details? First chapter? First ten chapters? How much slows the story, and how much keeps the reader from skipping ahead to find out what in tarnation is going on?

  11. Ah, excellent questions, Lisa. Shall we conquer them together?

    For me, it's about pacing. If a writer can pace the story to reveal things little by little, I think the reader will be more patient with the story.

    Whaddya think?

  12. I agree. Plus, I think the motive behind the questions is important, too. In the example you used, the sheepherder's choice is tied to some past wound, and that's what makes it a legitimate question, not just a ploy to keep the reader turning pages. So...I care about the character. What happened to him? What did he do that led to his current predicament? These are good bits of backstory that raise good questions in the reader's head. And I think that's what draws the reader in and keeps them from skipping unnecessary details.


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