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Don’t tell the reader anything.

NaNo and seeing new and veteran writers working their asses off has made me want to write about the craft today. I am not an expert by any means, but I have read a ton of ‘how to’ writing books. I devour them. They are one of the things I never tire of. By far Stephen King’s On Writing is my favorite. I’ve read some of my paperbacks on writing until the covers fell off. If my books weren’t all still in boxes I’d post more of my favorites, but they are hiding and I’m still choosing to ignore the stack of boxes yet to be unpacked.

I am often accused, nicely, by my readers of keeping secrets and not revealing the details they want to know. I chuckle to myself and tell them answers will come in time. I think I will get knifed if I don’t start giving more of George’s back story away soon, but I digress. When readers are curious, they keep reading. Our job as writers is to romance the reader to keep turning pages. We have to find a balance between giving little bits of knowledge and keeping the mystery alive to seduce them.

Authors love backstory. I hear so many say it, and I hear even more industry professionals complain about it. There will probably be quite a few people who disagree with this blog and my advice. I can only speak to what has worked for me, and the advice I’ve taken to heart from books on the craft.

First rule or writing fiction: Do not tell your reader anything! Nothing at all. Make them work it out for themselves. Trust your readers. They aren’t idiots and they will appreciate not being treated as such. 

You may show them things happening in the present, and foreshadow the past, but I repeat do not tell them a damn thing.

“But Gray I have all this back story and it’s amazing! See how damaged my character is? Everyone needs to see how beautifully damaged he is.”

NO! Show me how damaged he is. Don’t tell me. I don’t even care if you work it into an awkward conversation no one would ever have in real life.

I’m sure the backstory is great, and I’m sure your imagination is wonderful. Good job. -gives you the pat on the back you want from readers- Now put it the fuck away. Act like backstory is a huge secret. Turn into a sadist. All good authors are sadists. We torture our characters relentlessly. We test them. We drive them to the edge of a cliff and then throw rocks at them to see if they have what it takes to survive. We not only inflict this pain on our characters we do it to our readers. Readers have to care. If they don’t care they don’t read. Without a strong emotional response we as authors have nothing. Torture your readers with backstory. Make them beg for it. Make them so curious they will sell their soul for a taste of salvation. Make them willing to do anything for the information and then don’t give it to them.

Secrets keep readers engaged. It’s not a big secret. When people are curious they keep reading. Curiosity drives human kind. It drives us to learn, it drives us to explore the world around us, and it drives us to interactions with other people. Curiosity is a powerful tool in fiction. Readers use books to escape, to live outside themselves, curiosity is a huge part of the experience.

This is not to say you shouldn’t tell a story and do it well. You want to tell the current story as clearly and as fully fleshed out as possible, but anything that happened before the story put it in a vault. Lock the vault and lose the key.

You may be allowed to find the key six or seven books in, but only with strict permission. -shifty- I wasn’t talking about George…

All kidding aside, do not reveal the backstory until you need it to drive the plot or your characters forward. Backstory is a precious tool. Do not squander it by giving it away too freely or to soon.


To do list:

Finish NaNo

-glances around- Could it be… Shhhh if I draw attention to it being mostly empty karma will fill it.

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