Back Story Gone Overboard

I haven’t blogged for a few days. I’m forcing myself to reedit Shadow Cat for the umpteenth time. But I’m finding some interesting things. One in particular is the need for back story. How much back story does a novel really need to keep it afloat? Not very much, I’m finding.

When I first started submitting to my critique group October 2009, I received comments asking if this is the best place to start the book. Another comments referred to driving the story forward.

I don’t know about other writers, but I put my heart into the background story. The characters come to life as I jot down each and every word which brought them into their situation. And I absolutely love the little bits. But does the reader need to know what my character did for the first 30 years of his life? Probably not.

So I’m stuck with trimming my baby. Breaks my heart to chip chapter after chapter from the front of the novel. YES! The front. Cause really, writers should start the story with the story, not the back story.

Now this may not work for everyone, but I’ll share how I find the start of my story. It’s really quite simple. Start reading from chapter 2. Is the story ruined? Can I make the entire novel flow by just adding a couple of details from the prior chapter throughout the rest of the novel? If I can, then I know I can trash the first chapter. <this is usually when I give a heartbroken sigh.> Onward! I rinse and repeat at chapter 3, and so on until voila! I hit the beginning of the book. The place where the action begins.

From there I can weave in the back story to fill in the blanks. But wait!!! Don’t go overboard with the back story. Only give the information the reader really needs to know to understand the novel. Word count is so important, don’t waste it on frivolous information. If he just came out of a rocky relationship, fine, mention it. But don’t give the nitty gritty details. And for Pete’s sake don’t rehash the whole thing in one spot, nor come back to it 50 times trying to drive the point home. By the way, who is Pete?

Anyway. Will I stop writing back story? Probably not. Why? Because it helps develop the character in my mind, and I think that’s important. I’ll just keep it to myself and bore the reader with all the dull details.

Dialogue Tags -Versus- Action Tags

Getting the dialogue just right can be tough a times. Just when it seems like the speech is perfect and authentic, up pops the decision between action and dialogue tags. Which is better? Well let’s take a look at the tags.

Dialogue Tag

These little labels come either before or after the speech to indicate the speaker talking.


  • he said
  • she asked
  • they hollered
  • Bob hissed
  • Jill gushed

Though dialogue tags can be creative, really fiction writers should limit it to “she said” “he asked.” Why? Because readers overlook the words said and asked. Anything else, and it may break up the flow of the writing, causing the reader to mentally flinch and have to reread the passage. That’s not to say a writer should never, ever use dialogue tags other that “said” and “asked.” Once in a blue moon, something else might, MIGHT, be warranted.

Dialogue tags and punctuation

Sometimes it’s easier to show with examples, so here goes.

  • “You have no idea,” she said.
  • He said, “You have no idea.”
  • “Do you have any idea?” she asked.
  • She asked, “Do you have any idea?”

Now the rules

  1. The tag “asked” goes with a question. Some even think one should use “said” in this case as the question mark (?) implies a question.
  2. Separate the dialogue tag and speech with a comma, not a period. ‘”You have no idea.” She asked.’ is wrong!
  3. If the dialogue tag is at the end of the sentence, do not capitalize it unless it’s a proper name…this goes for questions also. ‘”Do you have any idea?” She asked.’ is wrong! However, ‘Do you have any idea?” Bob asked.’ is okay because “Bob” is a proper name.
  4. If at all possible, avoid adverbs to set the mood for the speech. Your dialogue and actions should be enough to convey the meaning behind the speech without the adverbs. Once I blog about Show Versus Tell, I’ll link  it here.
  5. Don’t split a sentence with a dialogue tag. “I cannot believe,” she said, “that Bob said that.” Not only is this wrong, but it’s as annoying as hell.

Action Tags

These serves the same function as a dialogue tag, but requires an action (sorry…I hate using the same word in the definition for trying to give meaning, but my mind threw a blank.)


  • he laughed
  • she played
  • he sneered
  • Bob grimaced
  • Jill sat

Action tags and punctuation

A lot of writers make mistakes in this area. Just a few examples of proper Action tag usage.

  • Jill twirled around the room, a look pure bliss on her face. “I love french toast.”
  • “I love french toast.” Jill twirled around the room, a look of pure bliss on her face.
  • The corner of Gary’s lip pulled back in a sneer. “If you don’t get that thing out of my face…”
  • “If you don’t get that thing out of my face…” The corner of Gary’s lip pulled back in a sneer.

And the rules

  1. Unlike the dialogue tag where a comma is the separator, a period is a separator between the action and dialogue here.
  2. Do not try to turn an action tag into a dialogue tag. For example, ‘Jack sneered, “I hate this.”‘ is wrong! Sneered is not a dialogue tag, it’s an action or expression. Don’t confuse the two. The proper way to write a sneer and dialogue is ‘Jack sneered. “I hate this.”‘

That sums up the differences between dialogue tags and action tags. So when to use them? Let’s spell them out in rules.

  1. A dialogue and/or action tag is NOT need for every piece of dialogue. If it’s obvious who’s speaking and the character is doing nothing, then skip the tags altogether.
  2. Do not bog down the writing with excessive dialogue/action tags. Even if the character is diddling about, too many tags slows down the reader.
  3. Try not to put long passages of action, back story, and descriptions in the middle of a conversation; again, it bogs down the story. Speech should flow naturally. Extra words between dialogue are like pauses in the middle of a conversation. So keep that in mind.
  4. Generally, an action tag AND a dialogue tag are not needed for one piece of speech. For example, ‘”Hey!” she said, snatching her notebook back from Bob.’ Instead, try ‘”Hey!” She snatched her notebook back from Bob.’ Notice the first is a dialogue tag with a comma, the second example is an action tag, capital “She.”
  5. Be sure the actions/dialogue tags are used in the proper places (beginning or ending of the sentence.) ‘He laughed. “Stop that.”‘ means something different from ‘”Stop that.” He laughed.’ The first means he laughed then spoke, the second means, he spoke then laughed. Also, keep in mind the point of view (POV). The main character isn’t going to know someone said something until after it’s already said. So, ‘Bob said, “Stop that.”‘ is wrong! if you’re not in Bob’s POV.
  6. If possible, avoid tags in the middle of sentences since they are distracting and indicate a pause in speech.

These guidelines are not all-inclusive. And of course I make mistakes, but don’t tell my husband. Break the guidelines at your own risk. 🙂

If you happen to know a few more to add to the list, feel free to leave a comment.

My Creation Process

My first novel, Shadow Cat just sort of came about. I got an idea for a character, which formed into a storyline, then blossomed into a full length novel. I just wrote until I got to the end, developing the story as it fell upon paper. And when I finished, I had one heck of a mess. 🙂 It took me longer to rewrite and edit the book than it took to get the words on paper in the first place. But eventually I refined and completed it.

Somewhere along the editing, I came across a great blog by Jordan McCollum The Hero (and Heroine)’s Journey–Hero’s Journey in romance.I found it to be an excellent method for starting and avoiding writer’s block. Now I have a few stories I’ve outlined using that process. It’s become a cataloging sort of system for me, so I don’t forget the great ideas I have floating in my head. So, that’s just the basic–the outline.

A few days ago, I sifted through Akiane‘s website (child prodigy) and came across videos of her painting. It reminded me of my own writing techniques and provided a visual representation of my process (not saying my writing compares to her artwork or anything like that). I start with something simple and add layer upon layer until it’s finished.

She sits before her blank canvas (empty doc file), and an image (story) appears before her. Pulling out her chalk she sketches (outlines) the rough details before they fade from her memory, setting the foundation for a beautiful piece of work. The groundwork laid, she grabs her palette and brush (thesaurus and dictionary) and smears a glob of paint (first line) on the fabric (document), spreading it until it forms a cheek (paragraph). Another splash of color around the eyes (new paragraph) adds dimensions, but it needs more… it needs to blend (flow). She smudges the two colors, blurring (creating a bridge between sentences) until she no longer has separate entities (paragraphs/chapter)–a cheek, an eye, a chin, but a complete face (chapter/story). The image (chapter/story) is not quite realistic,  the color (sentence) aren’t right. She tweaks (edits) it, adds more color. Beautiful. Pulling out her fine brush, she adds details (adjectives, power words) and replaces dull colors (inactive verbs) for brighter ones (active verbs) until she achieves the exact look and texture she wants.

She’s evolved her vague sketch (outline) to a finished painting (novel), a masterpiece. Or something like that.

Keep or Trash

If you’re like me, you can’t wait to receive the next critique of your chapter, story, novel, whatever.

“You’ve got mail.”

You click the flashing envelope one to many times and wait for the multiple windows to load. Then the critique…

Your critter has found so many things you’ve missed, and you’re so thankful s/he took the time to review your work. Then you come across something that just doesn’t jive with you. What is your critter talking about? Doesn’t s/he get it? Did s/he even read the chapter? Then the doubts kick in. Maybe you didn’t make it clear enough. Maybe you should just delete it all. STOP!

Be objective about the critiques; they’re meant to help you, not hinder you. If you take the advice of every single critter out there regardless of whether it goes against your instincts or not, your book will be TRASH. Not all advice is worthy of your book, as interesting as the opinion may be.

Read a critique with the the idea you’ll incorporate the sound advice and set the “other stuff” to the side. Writing is about artistic freedom, make it fun!

Everyone has their own particular opinions, likes and dislikes. Some people will enjoy your style, others will not. Accept that and move on.