Friday, November 8, 2013


Have you ever met someone who immediately felt the need to tell you their life story? Yeah, me too. I don’t know about you, but my first reaction, once my eyes quit glazing over, is to run far and fast. Well, too much backstory in the beginning of your novel can and probably will have the same effect on your reader.

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?
The answers to these questions will be important for you to know as the writer, and they'll be important to your novel but, if handled correctly, the forward-moving story can reveal many of those answers to your reader without you having to spell them out through too much backstory.

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:
  • 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.)
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.

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:
  • 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?
Author Stephanie Whitson asks some good questions regarding backstory:
  • 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 not, leave it out.

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?

It's (gasp!) 47 days to Christmas. Leave a comment and I'll enter your name in a drawing for my whimsical A Heavenly Christmas in Hometown.


Patti Hill said...

"The reader doesn't need to know as much as the writer does." This is so true, Sharon! I think I'll paint this on my wall. In fact, I'll be printing this post. You packed it with great information. Writers do a lot of planning of their characters' lives before the story. Most of it needs to stay there. This was great.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

THANK YOU, Sharon! You know, if I get whiffs of too much backstory in a novel I'm reading, I usually put it to the side.

With my WIP, I am marking all occurrences of backstory to consider for chopping in the editing process. This was a timely post for sure!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Thank you, Patti. Mwah!

Susie, I love your idea about marking the backstory for evaluation. I'm going to borrow that from you! Thanks for your input.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I like to raise questions in the reader's mind before answering them. I have the character do something surprising and a little further on the reason comes out. Pacing is important. Readers learn to trust the author when their questions are answered in a timely way. The further they get in the story the longer they are willing to wait for the answers.
The bigger the question the more times it can be asked before answering. Or the answer might be bled a little at a time bringing a huge AHA! at the end. All the answers have to do with backstory. Like pulling a marshmallow through a crack in the wall.

Tracy Groot said...

Holy smokes. I needed to hear this NOW. Recently read James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers, keep referring to it, want to be buried with it. Thanks, Sharon. Great stuff.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Henrietta, I like what you say about readers trusting the author when their questions are answered in a timely way. Very good point.

Tracy, Jim is such a good teacher. Glad this post was useful to you.