Too Much, Too Soon?
By Cynthia VanRooy
Ever have the experience of meeting someone
at a party and within minutes youve heard about
their three miscarriages, the ex-husband they left
because of his drinking, the brother whos in
prison, but its not his fault, his friends got him
into trouble, and the uncle whos suspected of using
drugs? Whats your reaction? Do you want to know
this person better, pursue this new relationship further?
Hardly! You cant wait get away from this stranger
you already know too much about.
This is the most common mistake new romance writers
makesubjecting their reader to the same kind of
too-much-too-soon information dump. Its
understandable. We want the reader to love our heroes and
heroines as much as we do, to understand why they do what
they do. Our mistake is in wanting the reader to
understand before weve given them a reason to care.
If the stranger were your best friend instead, that would
change your reaction considerably to the details they
relayed. This holds true for your fictional characters,
too. The reader needs to become emotionally involved with
them, become caught up in the present moment of the
characters lives before they can be interested in
anything that happened before the story started.
Thats what backstory isthe events that
happened prior to page one that led up to the story. The
most dangerous thing about backstory is that its
boring. Nothing is happening to engage the reader. The
characters arent acting. Youre just relaying
information about them in the most uninteresting way
Rather than start your novel with backstory, start with
the culminating action that is the result of that
backstory. Give the reader only as much information as
they need to follow that action without becoming
confused. Trust the reader. Theyre bright,
theyll get it. Honest. Need an example? Story opens
. . .
A woman is driving at night. The only things keeping
her weary, hurting body awake are tension and adrenaline.
She has to put as much distance between herself and
Richard as she can, but she knows she needs to stop and
rest soon before she becomes a menace to anyone else on
the road. She takes the next exit off the freeway and
finds herself in a small, seedy-looking town, the stores
all closed and the streets mostly deserted. She spots a
motel up ahead. She pulls her car into the parking spot
in front of the orange neon lights proclaiming
With an effort she releases the steering wheel, only to
discover her hands are shaking. She takes a couple of
deep breaths trying to get herself under control, then
grabs her purse and opens the car door.
In the office the clerk hands her a pen and shoves the
register toward her. She hesitates and has a moment of
panic as she tries to decide whether to use her own name.
No, better not. She signs her first grade teachers
name, the only one she can think of. The clerk stares at
her left eye and she can feel its swollen. She
wonders if it has begun to turn black. The clerk hands
her the room key and she hurries to escape his scrutiny.
Once in her room she bolts the door and puts on the chain
before turning on the light and dropping her bag.
Shes so tired she wants to collapse, but knows
shell sleep better after a warm shower to ease the
aches. As she peels off her clothes she notes in the
mirror the bruises blooming on her ribs and hip. And yes,
her eye has turned black.
After a shower that does little to relieve the pain, she
is making her way from the bathroom when the phone rings.
She freezes, clutching the towel tightly around her, her
hands fisted in the terrycloth. Oh, God, hes found
her already. The phone continues to peal insistently and
she reaches out a trembling hand and lifts the receiver.
Nothing confusing here, you understand whats
happening, The passage raised some questions, but
thats a good thing. Thats how you draw the
reader in. Who is Richard? Why is she running away from
him? What will happen if he finds her? Is he the one who
To get hooked into this character and this story you
didnt need to know the woman ran away at sixteen to
escape her abusive home life, that she lived on the
streets for two years, that she got her act together and
worked her way through college, that Richard is a
musician she met in a coffee house where she worked, that
she fell in love with him because of his protectiveness,
that the protectiveness revealed itself shortly as
control, and that it turned into the same kind of abusive
behavior she used to get from her father that she had
promised herself never to take again. Whew.
Ideally, that backstory would be fed to the reader a
little at a time, as they needed it. One of the best ways
to impart backstory is in dialog, where realistically the
hero/heroine might reveal it to the other. Dialog, with
its action and white space on the page, is
reader-friendly and interesting, as opposed to long
passages of introspection where the character is doing
nothing but thinking.
Arent convinced yet you should avoid starting your
book with backstory? An editor once told me if she
wasnt engaged in the story by page five, she
wouldnt read any further before rejecting a
manuscript. Think thats harsh? Shes being
charitable. Most editors make that decision by page
three. Some new writers try the trick of reversing a page
in their manuscript when they send it in. Then when they
get it back rejected and the page is still reversed, they
regard this as proof the editor never actually read their
story. Well . . . yes, they did. They read as much as
they needed to in order to know they werent
interested in reading any more.
You have three pages to interest the editor/reader in
your novel. Dont waste them on backstory. Throw the
reader right into the action. A hundred years ago writers
had the luxury of beginning a story with Once upon
a time . . . Todays readers are too
impatient. Toss them right into the garden with a sobbing
Cinderella and her fairy godmother and explain later.
Your readers will thank you for it.
Now that you've written the book, does the
hardest part seem to be getting an editor to read it? Let
award-winning romance author Cynthia VanRooy, published
in both print and electronic formats, teach you in her
information-packed ebooklet The Secrets to Query Letters
That Work how seasoned professionals, even unagented
ones, circumvent the slush pile and get their fiction in
front of the decision makers. For more information click
Check out Cynthia's newest release: Friday's
Temptation - When a cynical
action/adventure writer is blinded in an accident, his
new Girl Friday juggles his demands and her growing
attraction for him. Available now from NAD Books http://www.NADBooks.com