Backstory, amply defined by The Editor’s Blog, is simply “the story before the story.”
Wikipedia goes into a bit more detail: “Backstory is a set of events invented for a plot, presented as preceding — and leading up to that plot ... Generally, it is the history of characters or other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative’s start ... As a literary device, backstory is often employed to lend depth or believability to the main story.”
Jessica Page Morrell, in Between the Lines, warns that "backstory, if used incorrectly, can stall a story," because a novel should always be moving forward. Backstory "must be cleverly inserted so that it's unobtrusive and allows the front story to press ahead." She adds, "Perhaps the biggest problem with weaving in backstory revolves around this simple fact: The reader doesn't need to know as much as the writer does." As writers, we often go to great lengths to create detailed biographies of our characters and a story world that is three-dimensional. We can often see our characters in our heads, as well as the places they inhabit. But not everything that goes into the creation of our creation needs to be shared with the reader. We need to give them just enough to fill in the blanks, and then let their own imaginations take over.
But backstory has another task besides filling in gaps, and it's an important one. When used to its full advantage, backstory provides character motivation for what takes place in the novel. To again quote Ms. Morrell, "A protagonist is a person with a burning desire, and backstory reveals where this desire stems from." She lists some backstory factors to consider when creating your character:
- Who or what were his or her childhood influences and major events?
- Who was the most significant person in his or her young life?
- What past relationships have shaped your character?
- What event from the past will affect the plot?
- What regrets does your character have?
- What is his or her worst fear? Darkest secret?
So, when and how is it appropriate to bring in backstory? There are varying opinions about when—and when NOT—to bring in backstory. Some say none at all in the first fifty pages, which, if true, is a rule I’ve sadly violated all too often. So I put the question to a group of authors I highly respect, and here’s what a few of them advise:
James Scott Bell, author of a number of terrific suspense novels, as well as the very popular Writer’s Digest Books including: Plot & Structure, Dialogue, Conflict & Suspense (all of which I recommend.) says, regarding backstory: “Act first, explain later.” He believes you should begin your novel with action, “which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights.” Instead, your opening should “show a character in motion” and “manifest disturbance to their ordinary world.” He goes on to say, “Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.”
As a reader, I completely agree. Yes, I want to know about the character whose story I’m delving into. I want to care about him or her. If I don’t care, I won’t continue to read. But plop me down in the midst of the action or situation, and then, when I’m catching my breath, tell me something about the character and the story world. Jim calls this: “bonding your character with the reader.”
One of my personal favorite examples of bonding character with reader comes from The Hunger Games, the first book in the wildly popular triolgy. (BTW, I can’t wait for Catching Fire to be released November 22!) Chapter 1 gripped me from the beginning, but when, in Chapter 2, Katniss says, “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” in place of her young sister, Prim, I knew I wasn’t leaving Katniss’ side till the story was over. And, oh, what a story.
So give just enough backstory to make your reader sympathetic to your protagonist, and then, weave it in throughout the rest of the story. Veronica Heley, author of more than 70 novels (!) says: “Drip feeding the backstory is best for all concerned.” Drip feeding. What a visual. I love it.
Christy-award winning author Kristen Heitzmann says: “Backstory can and should be done in any way that serves the story.” There are various ways to bring it in:
This is not a comprehensive list of how to work in backstory, but gives you an idea of how it can be integrated into the novel.
- Through small bits of exposition.
- Through character reflection — (but be careful to keep it truly introspective, rather than it sounding like the character is sending information telepathically to the reader).
- Through dialogue (But, again, be careful. Noah Lukeman, in The First Five Pages, says, “Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know” for the sake of the reader (pg. 94). Example: “Hi, Janet. This is Sharon, your older sister, who lives an hour south of you. Your niece Mindy, who is my older daughter, has moved to Washington, and man am I bummed about it.” Janet, being my sister, already knows all that, so it's a ridiculous use of dialogue.
- Through flashback (This is a device I used throughout Lying on Sunday to show the character---or lack thereof---of the protagonist’s deceased husband.)
- Occasionally, through use of a prologue. (Prologues should be used rarely and should draw the reader right into the story world. This is not the place for a backstory information dump.)
DiAnn Mills, author of numerous romantic suspense novels, as well as the writing-craft book The Dance of Character and Plot, teaches that, before each scene, a writer ask the following questions:
Author Stephanie Whitson asks some good questions regarding backstory:
- What is the POV character’s goal or problem?
- What does the POV character learn that he/she didn’t know before?
- What backstory is revealed? (I encourage no horrible protagonist’s traits. This doesn’t mean a teasing phrase here and there but no significant backstory.)
- How are the stakes raised?
If not, leave it out.
- If I don’t put this in the story, will the reader miss something essential?
- Will they misunderstand my character?
- Will they be confused by a plot point?
If backstory is something to be treated with kid gloves, incorporated in bits and dribbles, is it really important for you to create backstory for your characters and story world? Well, let me ask you this: Do you find it easy relating events of someone’s life if you don’t know them well? I don’t. Likewise, the better I know my characters, the better I’ll be able to tell their story. That doesn’t mean the reader will learn everything I know about my protagonist. They may, in fact, learn only a fraction of what I know. But that fraction better be really pertinent to the story. It better help bond the reader to the character, and answer just enough at any one time to keep the reader wanting to know more.
What is your position regarding backstory? Do you have/stick by a hard and fast rule? How/when do you choose to incorporate it? Have you ever found backstory to distract you from a novel you were reading?
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