As beginning writers, we often think we need to put this all up front, so the reader will know exactly who this character is, what influenced him and how she got into whatever mess she’s found herself in.We’ve all read books that start out with a great hook—the character in the middle of a situation that makes us want to know how he/she gets out of it. So, we’re all primed for the action, the world of this story. But what happens if the whole next chapter takes us back to the character’s childhood, explaining how mistreated he/she was, describing all their physical traits, and reasons she hates men or he wants to climb the highest mountain.
That should give us all we need to know about the character so we can go on and enjoy the rest of the story, right?
Including big chunks of backstory in the opening pages is like saying, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”
Long paragraphs, pages or even chapters of “telling” stops the action cold. We don’t have any emotion invested in this character yet, so we don’t necessarily care enough about him to want to continue on the journey. Like meeting a new friend in real life, we need to get to know the character as we continue to meet him, see him in various situations, see how he reacts.
Interrupting the story to tell the reader about something that happened before it began works against what we’re trying to accomplish: engaging the readers and sweeping them up into the world of our novel.
Backstory is best woven in gradually throughout the story. Giving the reader a tidbit here and another one there helps to heighten the tension, because we keep reading to find out why or how or when. And it slowly builds the character, just like that new friend you’ve met.
The book Icebound by Dean Koontz is a great example of withholding crucial backstory information. A woman scientist is among a group conducting a secret experiment in the Arctic. As this action-packed thriller progresses, we learn that she has a fear of ice. Everything that happens escalates this fear just a little, but we do not find out why until the very end. Very powerful way to use backstory.
Folio Literary Management’s Jeff Kleinman offers this hint: “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.”
How do you use backstory?
|A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, will be published in May 2014. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.|