Monday, June 3, 2013




One of the trickiest things for me when I write a book is fitting in all the stuff that happened to the characters before the story begins.

It's not hard to invent this prior life - a mother's death in a horse riding accident, moving from town to town, a devastating fire, a string of foster homes and changing schools are a few examples of the things that have happened to some of my characters before their story begins. These events from the past add layers of interest and depth to a character. They explain why a character behaves or thinks in a certain way.

So why is it so hard?

As soon as you switch to backstory, no matter how interesting, you take the reader away from the immediate action. And that slows the story down.

There are two ways to deal with backstory. You can insert the information into the dialogue or thoughts of a character without leaving the present action. Or you can actually go back in time and write a scene called a flashback.

Be very wary of flashbacks when writing for children. Young readers can quickly become confused. Make sure there is a compelling reason to use a flashback.


*It must follow at least one strong scene set in the present so the reader has a sense of the character (if you don't care about the character today, why will you care about the character in the past?)

*Make it clear exactly when the flashback occurs.

*Avoid overusing the word "had" which will quickly become annoying. Use it for a few times and then switch to the regular past tense.

*Make the scene dramatic with strong dialogue and conflict.

A better way to tell the backstory when writing for children is to insert it into the character's thoughts or dialogue. But be careful it doesn't become an information dump. Tell only as much as you have to. If it's not important, leave it out.

Avoid a lot of backstory in  the first chapter. You might be surprised how easily it slips in. I once highlighted all the backstory in one of my drafts of a first chapter and was shocked when I saw how much there was.  I imagined the reader saying, "Get on with the story!" I deleted, deleted, deleted.

I believe one of the most common reasons a child finds a book boring is because there is too much "telling" of backstory.

No matter how you choose to tell the backstory, you'll need a trigger. A strong sensory detail works well. In my book Missing, the smell of hay in a barn reminds Thea of her mother and the horse barn on their old farm.

          The heavy door creaks when I push it open. I'm immediately hit with the smell of hay. An image of another barn slams into my head. . . It's four years since I've been in a horse barn. Four years since Mom died.

          From there, I was able to insert relevant details of Thea's past life with her mother.

So, let your imagination soar and invent all kinds of details about your character's past. But only use the most important ones!

Some advice from Nancy Kress in Beginnings, Middles and Ends . . .

A writer always pays a price for flashbacks. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, will distance your reader from the action . . . Are you more thrilled by a kiss you experience today or one you remember from a year ago?


 Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Winner of the Silver Birch Award!

A gripping story about a girl sent to a Nazi slave labour camp. Look for the companion novel Stolen Child.



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