Tag Archives: book

How to Introduce Backstory Without Boring Readers

I get a lot of questions regarding writing advice. While I’m no expert, I certainly have some opinions that I’m more than happy to share. Recently, I was asked:

“How should I go about adding background information about characters, setting, and whatnot, while making it seamless and natural to the storyline, and engaging for the reader?”

I would advise not to go too crazy in the beginning. In other words, it may be best to keep the backstory to a minimum in the first couple of chapters. Offer as little backstory as necessary, just enough to provide context, but not enough to make it a slog to get through.

Reading an entire novel requires a huge time commitment and a lot of effort, and there are a ton of other forms of entertainment competing for the reader’s precious time. What a lot of readers do is read the first couple of chapters and see if the book is heading in a direction that will entice them to continue reading. If not, they abandon it and pick up something else. So more than any other time, the opening must be awesome, and backstories are generally not awesome, so save it for later, if at all.

buildings

In my book Prodigy, I have an intro, which I was not a fan of, but I just found it to be the best way. I basically set up the entire context of the story in one go. This is the point of an intro so I don’t think the reader minds as much. It’s when you begin your story, introduce your character, and then ‘info dump’ by stating everything about her.

An example of bad background info would be, “Amy sat quietly in class, listening to her teacher drone on. She was reserved ever since the accident last summer, where her and her friends went camping and accidentally killed a guy…” this may be okay, but not in chapter 1.

I consider it bad because upon first mention of Amy, it’s ‘dumping’ the backstory onto the reader. Your reader doesn’t care about Amy yet and at this point has nothing invested in her, so why would they care about her backstory?

If you were to ask me, I’d say have Amy do something interesting, make the reader care about her, and then fill them in on some other details piece by piece – definitely not all at once, and definitely not in the first chapter.

girl reading

You may also do a prologue. In the Art of the Hustle for instance, I have a prologue of the main character when he is rich. He’s being interviewed on some talk show and the interviewer asks him, “How did you become a billionaire, where did it all start?” And then I open with chapter one as this young broke kid finishing high school. I think this was way more compelling because the reader knows he eventually becomes rich, but doesn’t know how. As the story unfolds, the reader is trying to guess how he becomes rich.

Fun fact — the prologue was one of the last things I wrote and I had it as the last chapter of the book. Then I thought, what if I move this piece to the front to let the reader know right off the bat that Trevor is a billionaire and the book will all about how he did it. FYI — I purposely throw in some misdirects to keep the audience guessing.

The Ignorant Character Method

As the story progresses, I try to use dialogue as much as possible to introduce backstory. I call this the ignorant character method whereby one character is ignorant to some crucial piece of information or another character’s backstory, and through a conversation, one character educates the ignorant character as well as the audience.

This seems natural since characters meeting for the first time often don’t know much, if anything, about each other. So naturally they would ask questions that would reveal their backstory. Even then, I wouldn’t get too crazy with it. I may do a bit and then back off out of fear that the reader would get bored.

Batman / Bruce Wayne dead parents

photo credit: Frank Miller

So let’s say you are writing Batman and you open with an epic fight scene (usually a good way to hook the reader). Then you could have Bruce back at the bat cave, looking at a photograph of his dead parents and Alfred come in and say something like, “Today’s the twentieth anniversary of your parents’ death,. You would have made them proud, Bruce…”

In this example, we’ve seamlessly worked it into a piece of dialogue that naturally fits the scene. It seems organic and not shoehorned in.

So to reiterate, my preference is to provide background information sparingly, work it into the story as seamlessly as possible (e.g. through dialogue), and try to avoid ‘info dumping’ at the beginning of the book.

I hope this helps. If you have any other questions, let me know.

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How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters

How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters I get a lot of questions regarding writing advice. While I’m no expert, I certainly have some opinions that I’m more than happy to share. Recently, I was asked:

“Are there any ‘good’ ways to have smooth transitions between chapters so that the story flows in an understandable way for the reader?”

First we need to understand that there are two different types of transitions that can occur when a chapter ends:

A.) transitioning from one scene to a completely different scene

B.) transitioning from one scene to a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter

Biker through tunnel

In scenario (a) if there are large gaps of time between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, then I usually say something like, “The last 6 months had been rough for Joe. He kept his head down and worked hard…” This is my “establishing shot” so-to-speak. It provides context for the reader and lets them know that the scene has now jumped. The next paragraph after that, I will have Joe doing something and engaging in a new scene.

My book The Art of the Hustle does this quite a bit since I cover 10 years in the book. In one scene, there was so much of a gap (like 4 years), that it was weird to just transition from one chapter to the next so I made a new part. So the book starts out with Part 1 – Chapter 1,2,3,4…. then about halfway, I introduce Part 2 and mention that it has been 4 years later. man walkingIn some cases, it may be more fluid to not have a chapter break, but instead just have a text break. So an example would look like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

***

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

With this technique, you don’t have to be all that smooth since the separator lets the reader know that you’ve transitioned into a different scene. If the gap in time is not that large, say the character is at work in one chapter, and then at home in the next chapter, I may just say “Joe was exhausted. He sat on the couch as he usually did after his shift and watched sports highlights…” hot air balloon at nightScenario (b) — a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter — is much easier. I actually prefer this ‘cliff-hanger’ technique as much as possible to encourage people to continue reading. TV shows often end this way as well. So if a chapter ends like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” I’ll end the chapter there so the reader wants to keep reading to find out who was standing behind Joe.

Then, in the next chapter I would begin by saying something like, “Joe couldn’t believe his eyes as he was now staring at a man he long presumed dead…” So basically you just pick up where you left off. In fact, I often write the scene straight through and then later pick some moment which I feel would make a good cliff-hanger and then end my chapter there.

Some writers have an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot and they stitch it together like a zipper. So in my above example, you would say something like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” End chapter. Then the next chapter would be the ‘B’ plot — a completely different scene altogether.

Then once that chapter ends, you pick up where you left off with the ‘A’ plot. I tend not to do this, but it can add more excitement as the reader now has to read an entire chapter just to get back to where they left off in the story.

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The Secret Manuscript – Chapter One

Here’s a video I made of me reading chapter one of my new book, The Secret Manuscript, which was published in August of 2014. If you haven’t already purchased a copy, it’s available in every major ebook store. For those who want to follow along at home, here is the text for chapter one.

The Secret Manuscript – Chapter One

Ben pulled out a knife from his back pocket and extracted the blade. Piercing the sharp edge into a corrugated box, he slid the razor between the two flaps that were being held together by a strip of tape. He proceeded to slice off the flaps to prepare yet another box for the floor.

For the most part, Ben kept his head down and worked diligently and unsupervised all morning. He fought the temptation to look at the clock as he knew that would only make time seem to go slower. The only joy of working in the stockroom of a grocery store was that there would be several deliveries throughout the day, giving Ben a chance to be outside and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, even if it was just from the loading docks. The rest of the day, he was stuck in the chilly stockroom under the dim lighting, contemplating his life choices.

A small radio played soft rock while he worked. Over the tunes, Ben heard a voice shout to him.

“Hey, B.O., I need you in aisle six!” his manager, Chad, demanded.

The secret manuscript book coverBen retracted his knife and put it in his apron before heading onto the sales floor. Chad had a disgusted look on his face as if Ben was the cause of all his problems.

“Somebody dropped a jar of pickles,” Chad said.

“Okay, I’ll get right on it,” Ben replied.

“I’ll be deducting the cost of the pickles from your paycheque.”

“What? You can’t do that.”

“First of all, don’t talk back to me,” Chad said aggressively as he approached Ben in threatening manner. “Second, someone has to pay for those pickles. Pickles aren’t free you know.”

It was the worst logic Ben had ever heard, but he decided to let it go. Unfortunately for him, he needed the job to support his meaningless existence.

“Yes, sir,” he said submissively.

Ben hung his head low and begrudgingly walked to the back to retrieve the usual clean-up supplies. He returned to the sales floor, wheeling a mop and bucket with one hand and carrying a broom and dustpan in the other. The resentful look on his face caught the attention of an attractive girl who was about his age. She must have overheard the discourse between Ben and his manager because she approached him and offered some words of encouragement.

“Don’t worry about him, he’s a jerk,” she said.

“Thanks,” Ben replied. He looked at the woman in awe. In his mind, he quickly made the following deductions — attractive woman in Cold Lake, must be from out of town, must have a boyfriend, probability of getting her… zero. Whatever Ben’s confidence was before he started mopping up pickles in his dorky uniform had now been reduced substantially. The only sensible thing to do was to forget about her and get his work done before he got into any trouble.

As Ben pushed the dirty mop back and forth through the sticky pickle juice, a thousand thoughts ran through his mind. He questioned whether the flack he received from Chad was worth it. Being a stock boy for the local grocery store was not how he envisioned his adult life, but he took solace in the fact he was at least not making minimum wage. For all that the job did not offer, there were a few perks. The main one being the discount he received on all his groceries. Having that reduced his cost of living, making it seem like he was earning more money than he actually was.

It was a task-based job comprised mostly of stocking shelves, handling incoming shipments, and doing the occasional clean up. He could simply come into work, put his head down for a few hours, and not have to deal with people. In fact, he enjoyed the solitude. That way he could get the real work done — creating characters, plotting stories, and developing dialogue. He would store all this information in his head throughout the day, then after his shift, he would go home and write.

However, his one-time dream of being a published author was being crushed with every waking moment. The reality was that he lived in a small town of less than 2,500 people, so being anything other than what he was — a menial worker — was an unlikely prospect.

Upon completing high school in Cold Lake, kids usually did one of three things: move to a bigger city to attend college, move to a bigger city to find work, or stay in town and work some dead-end job. The latter was what Ben had chosen to do — the typical choice of the unaspiring working-class citizen. Nobody really wanted to stay in Cold Lake, Alberta. Those who did slowly withered away leaving behind a hollow legacy of nothingness. Ben did not want that to happen to him. Instead, he wanted to find his purpose, a reason for existing, but from his current standpoint, his future looked bleak.

What made matters worse was the grocery store manager, Chad. He was a few years older than Ben and by this point in his life had worked his way up to a management position. The gross abuse of power was evident in nearly every decision and directive he made. For the unaspiring, having authority over others quickly fostered delusions of grandeur. Those who wielded the minutest of power rationalized their position as having a natural superiority over their subordinates. Chad was no exception. He made everybody’s life there a living hell, especially Ben’s. Ever since Chad was promoted, Ben had been looking for a way out — any way.

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How to Build an Audience as a Writer

The following is a list of advice that can improve your writing.

1069921_10100669193867131_531800510_n1. Practice Makes Perfect

Think about how much practice it requires to be really good at something. If you want to be exceptional, then you need to put in the same effort into your craft as Kobe Bryant puts into basketball – you need to write and edit everyday. To give you an idea, I write or edit around 11 hours nearly every day. There’s a really good quote I like to use often, it’s from Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up – he says, “Be undeniably good.” If you are undeniably good at what you do, then people will find out about you.

2. Take Your Time

A common mistake a lot of new writers make is they release their work too soon. RESIST THE URGE TO DO THIS!! To give you an example of what I do, I wait at least a year before putting any book or short story out, but usually longer. From the time I write something until the time it goes public is around two years. This is such an important point and should not be overlooked. Trust me, you need some separation from your work and within that time, your skills will have improved. You’ll go back to stuff that at a time represented your best work, but a year later will be complete rubbish. So if you want to make the maximum impact with your writing, it has to be good, and a story hot off the press usually isn’t good.

3. Make a Good First Impression

You’ve heard the saying ‘You only get one chance to make a good first impression’. Make sure your writing is very polished. You won’t be able to do this on your own so you must get editors to review your work. This also applies to the cover art as well. Make sure the product you’re representing is indistinguishable from a professional book. If your writing is of a poor quality, and then your next book is the best book ever written, you may not get that second chance from people.

4. Expose Yourself

If you’re writing for the sake of writing, that’s great, but most of us want others to read our work. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with trying to make a living from your art. However, to do this is very difficult. To build your fanbase, you must first reach some kind of audience – a large number of people who will evaluate your work and decide whether or not they like it. One way to do this is to be featured on a website that reaches a lot of people. You want the spotlight on your book for as long as possible to give people a chance to read your words. If your book is featured and appeals to people, you may even make a ‘trending’ list or a ‘hot’ list. This is also a great way to gain exposure. It also helps if you can be number one on those lists, but anywhere in the top ten is good.

Edward Mullen Prodigy #1

Another great way to expose yourself is to have multiple avenues where people can access you, and don’t be afraid to give your stuff away for free. Be active on as many social media accounts, respond to fans, have a podcast, have a YouTube channel, a blog, and be candid. People are usually really good at spotting fakes. If you want success in anything, you have to be authentic to who you are. Don’t be afraid to expose your personality and even your insecurities, because those things are what make you unique.

5. Explore the World

Writing well is not only about constructing grammatical sentences, your ideas have to be engaging and interesting for people to read. Interesting ideas, interesting points of view, and interesting ways of describing things comes with life experience. As a teenager or young adult, your experiences may be limited so I encourage you to experience new things. While you are exploring the world, remember to be observant and take notes. Observe how people behave, how systems work, what the inside of an office building looks like, and capture your ideas in digital form or on paper for later review. The more experiences you have, the more reference points you will be able to draw from in your writing.

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