A couple of weeks ago, when we discussed dreams and drug trips, a lot of writers noted that those tools can be useful ways to convey backstory. (Backstory is everything that happens before a novel officially starts.) I’ve been thinking about backstory a lot, because I’ve been polishing SINGLE WITCH’S SURVIVAL GUIDE, the first novel in a new series that picks up where my Jane Madison Series leaves off.
As authors, we invest a lot of time and effort creating our characters’ backstories. Alas, backstory can easily trip us up. If we provide too many details, we chance losing our readers, bogging them down in minutiae before we ever reach the exciting character and plot elements that are unique to our stories. If we ignore backstory entirely, though, our novels exist in a vacuum, without the details that make good characters, settings, and plots come alive.
Backstory can be introduced in many ways. Most skilled authors combine several methods to convey a maximum amount of information with a minimal intrusion to the main storytelling. Common methods include:
Prologue: Of course, a prologue is a chapter that precedes the main story, setting forth action that happened before Day One of the novel. Some editors disfavor prologues because they delay readers from getting into a story. With a prologue, readers invest time and energy to meet one or more characters in a specific milieu. When the prologue ends, though, and the main narration picks up at a different time and place, readers can feel cheated, as if they over-invested in the prologue material.
Flashback: As you know, flashbacks are sections of narration where a character remembers the past as if it is happening in the present. For example:
Goldi blinked, and she was back in her mother’s kitchen. There was the same pottery bowl she had eaten from every morning. The same canister of oats. The same plate of nasty, dried-up raisins.
Her mother wandered into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of nicotine and smoke. “Eat up, Goldi, girl. That’s all we have to stick to your ribs today.”
Goldi choked down a spoonful of the vile glop. She vowed that she would never eat oatmeal when she was a grown-up. When she could control her own life.
Flashbacks should be used sparingly. They can be jarring for a reader, pulling one out of a story with a jolt (especially if the flashback is not set off from the main text by use of a different font.) A few brave authors have tried to include flashbacks within flashbacks, forcing readers to track three different timelines at once. Absent extreme demands of a particular plot, character, or setting, authors should avoid embedded flashbacks.
Narrative Summary: Narrative summaries are sections of text written in the main timeline of the story, where a character looks back at the past. For example:
Goldi thought back to the breakfast she had eaten every morning of her childhood – the same lumpy cereal, the same nasty, dried-up old raisins. She could still remember the stink of nicotine as her mother wandered into the kitchen. What had her mother said, every single morning? “Eat up, Goldi, girl. That’s all we have to stick to your ribs today.” It had been all she could do, to choke down a spoonful of the vile glop. Even as a child, she had vowed that she would never eat oatmeal when she was a grown-up. When she could control her own life.
Generally speaking, narrative summary is less jarring for readers to absorb. Gentler than a full-blown flashback, narration does not fully transport readers into a different timeline. Authors, though, should pay close attention to their verb tenses, particularly to helping verbs, to make sure that the narrative summary is clear.
Dialogue: Writers can fold backstory into dialogue, revealing it line by line as characters talk to one another. For example:
Goldi shook Prince’s hand. “I can’t believe you actually work for Cereal Megacorp! I ate your oatmeal every single morning when I was growing up.”
“I hope you won’t hold that against me,” he joked.
“No. Megacorp was only responsible for the lumpy cereal. The nasty, dried-up raisins were my mother’s fault. I can still hear her, talking around her morning cigarette: ‘Eat up, Goldi, girl. That’s all we have to stick to your ribs today.’”
He winced. “Maybe I should leave the conference room and try coming in again.”
She realized that he might have interpreted her words as unprofessional. Goldi sat straighter in the leather executive chair and said, “That oatmeal was good for me. It made me vow that I would control my own life, once I was a grownup.”
Dialogue can be deceptive. It’s a useful tool for conveying a lot of information in a relatively short space. Nevertheless, dialogue will ring false – especially when it’s forced to carry the heavy burden of backstory – when characters fail to speak with their own unique vocabularies.
With so many potential pitfalls, how can a writer manage backstory effectively? The key is limitation. Authors should strive to include the least possible amount of backstory in everything they write.
Relevance: When including backstory, every last detail should be relevant to the narration of the main story. In the examples quoted above, Goldi’s aversion to lumpy porridge and desiccated raisins should directly inform her current life — maybe she decides to go into business making organic muesli. Or she might worry that she has a weight problem (too much oatmeal sticking to her ribs over too many years.) Maybe she despises smoking as a habit, a belief that is tested when she catches the hero smoking a celebratory cigar after a business victory. Whatever the details, every single word of the conveyed backstory should matter. If not, cut out those details.
Length: Even after you have determined that an element of backstory is necessary, fight to keep the revelation of that information short. Backstory is not the place to exercise your powers of description, your veritable thesaurus of phrases, your encyclopedic knowledge of your setting.
Think of backstory as a brake that you are applying to your narration. For the entire time you are informing your readers of something that happened in the past, you are keeping them from moving forward, from being engaged with your characters, from falling in love with your novel. If a single sentence will convey all the necessary background information, than limit yourself to that single sentence.
Location: Like adjectives and adverbs, backstory becomes much more noticeable when it is placed next to other backstory. Consider whether you need to divulge each element of backstory at that particular point of your novel. In the examples above, is it necessary to know that Goldi ate terrible oatmeal at the same time that we learn that her mother smoked, at the same time that we learn that Goldi vowed to become independent?
Chances are, we only need one of those elements at that precise narrative juncture. Spreading out backstory actually engages readers with the past. It builds a sort of mystery, a challenge to figure out what exactly has gone before. Ideally, a reader should receive each element of backstory with a sigh of relief and an excited eagerness to see how the characters will react to the newly gleaned information.
Okay – I’ve dumped a lot of information here. Next week, I’ll post some exercises for you to apply to your own writing, to figure out if you’re using backstory effectively. In the meantime, fire away with questions! (And if you have a particular book in mind, where backstory is handled well, let us know that too!)