The Art of Backstory ~ Fantasy Fiction Novel Problems and Solutions Anaylsis

The Vanishing Island ~ An Analysis of Back- Story     

 Back-story is an important element to any story. It creates the reasons the characters act the way they do and clues the reader into their motivations.      

 Both my characters (Emperor Wei Shu and Aine the Selkie) have back-stories. I slowly reveal their back-stories throughout the book. Water Lily on the other hand I do not. She is a side character but, it is her story which drives the plot forward.     

 1) It’s Water Lily’s curse on the vanishing island and the knowledge the island possess motivates Wei Shu to find it.      

 2) It’s the challenges of the island that brings Aine’s character into the plot.     

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 The Art of Back-story     

Reflect On: “The Mystery of Character” by Robert Wilson.  

 “This is another important part of character development — the back story. Where does your character come from? Where was he born? Where did he grow up? What is his relationship to his parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and lovers? Where did he go to school? Did he go to university? What was the political climate like? Why did he choose his current profession?  The answers to these questions can help you determine a character’s development, but what are the techniques that help you show these answers to your reader? Unless back story and the book’s plot are interwoven the reader does not want to know it. The reader is only interested in what’s happening now and what is going to happen.  

There’s a limit to how much you can show through action and reaction — think how little you learn about people in everyday life from what they do and say, and I don’t just mean politicians. People have a habit of being deceptive, to protect themselves from intrusion. They are not usually open, especially if they have something terrible to hide.”  
Problem: Originally, I had The Curse as the third chapter in the book, not as the prologue. Honestly, I really liked the prologue I had before (see below). It was short and created intrigue. I had my story reviewed by three different  people. Each mentioned that there was too much information (specifically regarding the prologue and Water Lily’s chapter) in a short period of time and they began to lose sight of Wei Shu. 
  • Orignal Prologue: 


This story begins on the other side of the world. In lands where men rule with the sword, the bow controls the plains and ships govern the seas. A child on the verge of manhood was chosen by heaven to rule and was soon overthrown by his uncle. Fleeing for his life war came crashing down around him as his entourage fled north to hide. As his destiny changed so did ours, we became intertwined with his will, his power, his rule. This man, would become no ordinary man, he would live in and govern both our worlds and ultimately seek to destroy it.      

We live in a time where danger lurks around every wave on every beach. We are the hunted. Even the dead will steal our souls. Old friends are now enemies and they blame us. Those that foresee the future, the Seer’s, wait for a glimmer of the Lost Ones. On cold and long winter nights the remaining Elderkin speak in hushed whispers the story of how it all began. Their voices fill the room while the wind shakes the walls and the sea rages its discontent.        

Our times, once happy, have greatly changed. We once lived openly along the shorelines, swimming unharmed in the open sea. Although we were trained to fight, it was only for protection. It was nothing like the war that would be waged upon us. The Lost Ones are gone, maybe dead or hiding. Soul stealers prowl our waters and rogues seek power. Our world has turned upside down. Few of the Elders made it through. The fires in our villages are now sparse for we are all in hiding. Some of us have returned to the ocean for ever, never to shift again. Some of us have passed on to the Land of Blue Waters. Some of us remain in Fire Mountain, Others hide camouflaged on desolate shorelines. We are in constant seclusion for if we are ever discovered to exist it would be disastrous for us all. Those of us who survived and those of us who are born in these times await the Lost Ones and the Pearl. The Seer has told us, the Pearl will come.   



  • Solution: My solution was to switch out the prologue with The Curse. As I felt knowing about Water Lily’s betrayal and her curse was more important than the original prologue. As it was what propelled Wei Shu to leave the Khan and seek his revenge. On the other hand, when I read books with long prologues I dread it. So what to do?


Problem: Am I Info Dumping?       

  • Question: What benefit does the reader get by knowing all about Water Lily’s humiliation and curse from the start? What would happen if it was woven into the story bit by bit?

Reflect On: “How to Weave a Back-story Into a Novel”  Marg McAlister       

 “The last thing authors want is to stop the forward pace of the story with an ill-timed diversion into the past – yet all too often this is what happens. The reason? The writer feels it’s imperative that readers understand the background – so they ‘dump’ it into the narrative, whether it should be there or not…      

What happens as a result? The reader is reminded that she is reading. That’s one of the worst things that can happen, because readers who become truly absorbed in a story ‘become’ the viewpoint character. They forget all about the everyday world, because they have been transported to the world of the story. ”      



Problem: Am I Showing or Telling?        

  • Question: Water Lily’s chapter runs over the course of a couple of days. There is a lot going on in that chapter. Her dethronement, her humiliation, the Emperor’s funeral, the introduction of a magical cricket, her curse and her seeing the curse come to fruition. Is there another way to tell this story?

Reflect On: 

“Battle of the Back-story” Emmett Spain (Great name by the way)    

“Few fantasy writers escape the fiery blade of exposition without a few scars. We spend uncountable hours crafting our worlds, and we know more about the history and lineage than we ever can (or should) convey in our novels. When I first started writing fantasy, I was concerned about making sure the reader understood what was happening. In doing so, I made a critical mistake: I underestimated the reader. Readers don’t need to be told every detail or every reason for every event; they can and will infer a great deal from the context of the action and the dialogue.”

“To Establish a Character’s Unique Situation, Show–Don’t Tell  by Brandi Reissenweber     

“No matter what your character’s back story, you can convey it succinctly while keeping the reader engaged in the moment-to-moment experience of the story.”





 Problem: Is the Back-story Suspenseful?   

  • Question: Have I told to much about Water Lily’s story and taken away an element of suspense?  

Reflect On: 

 ” Tips for How to Present Back-story”  Camy Tang    

 “When information is given out slowly, here and there, the “clues” increase reader interest. One piece of information will spark the reader’s curiosity, and further bits of information will reveal a larger view of the story “picture.”  

As the reader follows the hero, because the hero needs the information, the reader begins to need the information, too. The protagonist’s desires infuse the reader as she turns pages, anxious to know what happens next. 
When a character struggles to acquire information, it not only adds conflict to the story, it defers resolution, which keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.”   
  •  Possible Solution: The more I think on it, the more I’m swayed to put the orignal prologue back into the story instead of dedicating a whole entire prologue to why Water Lily was dethroned, her humiliation and the resulting curse. By filtering her story into the main characters present day lives I might enhance the element of suspense, without info dumping right at the begining. This could be achieved in a series of dream sequences Wei Shu has after he is told the story about the curse. 


I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback or suggestions.   





3 Comments Add yours

  1. Good tips there; I think the main issue for people first starting to write though is the sheer importance of character. It’s my experience, from when I’ve been asked to help someone with their writing or to co-write with them, that most people resist getting into their characters’ heads; it seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable. So besides the issues of how and when to expound on backstory, a big hurdle is impressing the need to include backstory at all. I’ve lost count of the number of scripts and short-stories I’ve seen where the characters are just “a guy” or “a girl”, Jim or Jane, and that’s it; the excuses I’ve heard are numerous too, but usually boil down to the inexperienced writer being wedded to a handful of ideas and unwilling to let them interact and expand, as if each mere idea alone were far too precious to touch, much less be allowed to breed.

    1. laradunning says:

      Thank you Samuel. Great to hear your feedback. Yes, I agree. Knowing your character is very important. Thank goodness for post-it notes, eh! They can splash the walls of your writers den with all the info you need to remember and keep in mind while pecking away at the keyboard. A few of the workshops I’ve attended have said to do a Myers-Briggs test on your character as a means to understand them better. As an aspiring writer that has helped me get a better handle of how my characters might react before that pivotal point in the character arc.

      1. I use footnotes in word, not just for character details but for story-arc, subplots, act structure, continuity, chapter navigation, the works.

        I just tried the Myers-Briggs on a couple of my characters; I’d say the process of doing it is more useful than the resulting analysis, because the ease with which you can answer the questions shows how well you know your characters, which would be the primary point of doing it.

        I rarely have a problem knowing how a given character will react, quite the opposite; I frequently find that the character’s natural and inevitable reaction is obvious, but kicks the story in an unexpected (and sometimes inconvenient) direction. But then, I’m very character-oriented in the way I write; character, to me, is all-important in unfolding the plot.

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