Thursday, 28 June 2012

Give Characters Interesting Anecdotes

If you want readers to know about your character’s past, put it in the form of an anecdote.

Don’t just tell them her parents split up when she was nine, have her remember how they bought her a talking doll before telling her the cat had been run over, a princess outfit before telling her Nana had cancer, and a bike before telling her they were getting a divorce. And now, every time someone gives her a present, she feels like running screaming from the room.

Fact and figures, names and dates don’t mean anything to readers.

In real life we nod politely when someone forces us to listen to them because we’re trapped by manners and social mores, but we’re really praying for someone to come and save us.

Or, if you’ve already been infected with the sickness, you’re waiting for a pause so you can inflict your own tedious minutia on their ear holes.

That’s not going to be good enough in fiction where manners mean nothing. You can’t close the cover on their face (sadly), but you can close it on their book.

The thing that happened in your character’s past that the reader absolutely needs to know, that thing had better have happened in an interesting way worth recounting. Because otherwise the reader doesn’t need to know it.

You may think the reader needs to know. You’d be wrong.

Even if this vital-but-dull information is essential, without it I have zero chance of  understanding what happens in the story, what if I decide not to read any more of the book? How essential is it now?

Here’s an example of the kind of typical backstory I see a lot of:
Jenny’s father was a sergeant in the army, which meant they were always moving around the country. Six months in Texas, three in Louisiana, nine in San Francisco. A year in Nebraska and another in South Dakota. Fillimore High was her fifteenth school in six years.  

The above is clear and factual. I’m sure you understand what Jenny’s life has been like. I’ve kept it quite short (because I was glazing over just writing it), but I’ve seen much longer versions of this kind of thing. It’s a lot of general information that gives you a general idea about the kind of life Jenny has, generally.

Here’s an example of what I’m suggesting you do:
Jenny’s father was good at pissing people off. Since he was a sergeant in the army, this meant they got transferred around the country. A lot. Six months in Texas was the longest they’d spent in one place, until he punched a three star general in the stomach. Couldn’t be helped, he’d claimed. The general was sleeping with Dad’s new fiancée – there was always a new fiancée — so he had it coming. Jenny had to put on the ‘please don’t lock up my daddy’ eyes — not for the first time — to get him out of that one. In the last six years, there’d been fourteen schools. As far as Jenny was concerned, Fillimore High was just number fifteen.

Specific information gives you a specific idea of what Jenny is like. A specific thing that happened that demonstrates the point you want the reader to take on board. This allows you to pass information to the reader, whether backstory or exposition, without them realising it.

Don’t make lists, use a single anecdote to sum up the experience in a way that gets the information across in an entertaining and memorable way.
If you found this post of use, please consider sharing it on one of the many social media sites you waste most of your life on when you should be writing. Cheers.


Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Good post

Another good example of showing not telling

- Mac

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Really good example. Guess it is easy to throw in a line of backstory without making it interesting.
Had to chuckle at the 'waiting for someone to save us' part!

mooderino said...

@Mac-it's more than possible to 'show' a scene and still bore the reader (you just have to show them something boring). First you have to come up with something interesting to say, then you can decide how best to present it.

@Alex-we've all been in that situation, although politeness forbids me to name names.

PT Dilloway said...

I was just reading someone else's post on showing and telling. I guess wordiness is in vogue right now. In your example the focus shifts from Jenny to her father, which is great if the story is about her father. Which just from that example I'd be more apt to enjoy a story about the father than her. I mean only your last three sentences really tell us much about Jenny and how she feels. So I guess if you feel the need to do this, don't steal focus from your own character.

Also, I'm pretty sure if you punch a general in the stomach you'll end up in Leavenworth, puppy dog eyes or no.

mooderino said...

@PT-I have no idea what the story is about, I'm making this up as I go. This isn't a post on showing/telling (see comment aboe yours). You wouldn't go to Leavenworth if the General didn't report it - you may be reading into it deeper than necessary.

Yesenia said...

Definitely going to focus on doing this! Love your example.

mooderino said...


LD Masterson said...

I read through the comments since I got here before there were way too many (for a change). I can never understand why some people feel the need to break in with their little criticisms.

Good example of how to package backstory.

mooderino said...

@LD-oh, that's alright, everyone has a right to offer their opinion here, even if they can't help being snippy about it.

Unknown said...

This really bols down to 'don't tell us the past events of the character's life, show us the character'. To some extent this may include past events, but they should be included in a characterisation context, not as a dry recital of facts.

Gwen Gardner said...

Oh, thanks for this! I have problems with backstory, so this will help:)

Spacer Guy said...

I like seeing the story as it unfolds. Its more fun to read. I'm stopping by to let you know that you've been tagged in today's blog post.

Lydia Kang said...

Well said, Moody. Backstory can be a burdensome read if not done right.

Anonymous said...

I love this! It's a great tip! Some beta readers and critiquers will insist you cut out these little bits, but they're often the best parts.

dolorah said...

Yeah, I have a rough draft or two full of "info dumps" I'm hoping to edit out. I needed them for me, but after a long hiatus, I wonder what is actually relevant; or interesting.


mooderino said...

@Ciara-what it boils down to is making sure the information about your character is interesting, whether you show or tell it is secondary.

@Gwen-gllad to help.

@spacerguy-thanks for being

@Lydia-burdensome, nice word.

@Dalya-it's often easier to suggest cutting something rather than improving it.

@Donna-I think you know when an anecdote is entertaining enough to be told to strangers and when it's only for those already closely related to the person in question. Readers are strangers.

Julie Daines said...

Great example. And thanks for this post. I'm not sure I've thought about back story in this way. But now whilst I'm revising, I know what to watch out for!

nutschell said...

love the example you gave. It's a great way of showing the character's voice as well:)


mooderino said...

@Julie-there's obviously many ways to reach that effect, but that effect should be to engage the reader's interest.

@nutschell-yes, you have much more control over the reading experience if you go beyonf just listing data.

Rachna Chhabria said...

This post is simply super, especially since I am writing a book that will need a lot of story about the character's past. I love the way you have said it with that wonderful example. I will bookmark this post.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-thanks, glad to be of help.

Margo Berendsen said...

Ah, lovely snarky post - did anyone even notice that comment about wasting time at the end?

And seriously, who needs gossip when you can be a writer? Isn't that we do? We create interesting smut for 80% of our novel, and then redeem it in the last 20%

mooderino said...

@Margo-I was going for delightfully cranky.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Good advice, and I find lots of writers have long backstories in their first drafts - but I suspect it's because the writer needed it, not the story. I usually type my backstory all in one go, but in a separate document, to get it all clear in my head, then I can weave parts in as the occasion arises (like that dinner guest just trying to find a way to bring up religion/politics in a conversation... "Oh you're having the chicken? That reminds me, you know the carbon tax is to blame for the Vietnam war, right?...). Yep, subtle.

cleemckenzie said...

Excellent. Excellent. Excellent. Did I say, "Excellent?"

Todd R Moody said...

This is an outstanding example of how to do backstory! I am cataloging this!

Caroline Gerardo said...

Dear delightfully cranky, you were not cranky just factual. I love the examples and your repair of the illustration.
I would have made it more forceful: "make them care."

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - I think there's a difference between general background and stuff the reader needs to know. Once you establish it's necessary backstory (and there's always some), that isn't enough to justify putting it in, it still has to be interesting.

@clee - pardon?

@Todd - nice.

@Caroline - I agree but it's often hard for the writer to make that distinction since they already care about the characters/story, even before they've written a single word, so they assume everyone else will too.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I like the word anecdote. Seeing how important it is to avoid an unwieldy infodump just makes it even better. Thanks Moody!

The Daring Novelist said...

I love anecdotes, in real life as well as in books. I think one secret to using an anecdote to convey information is to consider what it means to the character -- especially what it meant then and now. Why do they tell it? (or why are they reluctant to tell it?)

Gibson said...

Good point. You always should "dramatize" and/or stylize backstory and exposition. For me, I always like to just give the reader only what makes Character X's past stand out from any other characters or people in general. Usually this is also a big factor in the Character X's motivation. So it helps the reader know the character just enough.

mooderino said...


@Daring-a good anecdote is its own reward, I feel.

@Gibson-quality over quantity!

Unknown said...


. . . Just discovered you via Twitter, as I wasted my time NOT writing ;D [Masquerade Crew] .

Well, THIS Discovery certainly turned around the wastefulness of the click-click on a Saturday morning!

And! You won the Versatile Blogger Award - and other cool stuff - no wonder.

Aren't YOU a clever minx?

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