Backing in to Backstory

Mindy KlaskyMindy Klasky
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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!)

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15 comments to Backing in to Backstory

  • sagablessed

    First, I love that give examples.
    Second, in the exercises next week, will you be giving us critiques if we post them?
    Third, I just read a book -Gods and Monsters (cannot remember the author’ name right now)- where the backstory was dealt with nicely. MZB also did a nice job of those things.

  • I don’t have the book in front of me at this very moment, but I’m really enjoying D.D. Barant’s BLOODHOUND FILES series right now. In the first volume, DYING BITES, the main character is first whisked away to an alternate world where vampires and werewolves exist, and because of the specific circumstances, at times she can’t tell if she’s hallucinating. She finds a few of her new associates attractive but thinks back (in narrative summary-style) to the ex that stabbed her in the back for the sake of climbing the corporate ladder. First she hints that she almost got married before. Just a line or two, mentioned in the context of her thoughts. Then a bit later she gives a few paragraphs to remind herself that she’s not interested in relationships. Later, when things get a bit crazier in the story, the ex (possibly) shows up, and she doesn’t know if she’s imagining him. I like how it adds to the story by keeping the MC (and the reader) uncertain of what’s really going on.

    In fact, that seems to be the style I’ve noticed most when reading. If the main character has some sort of hangup (and is forced to deal with it) the details usually come in the form of narrative summary, first with dropped hints and then with more, as it becomes more relevant to their arc. But then I see the dialogue style of backstory used most often to show two characters relating, getting to know one another. (Sometimes combined with narrative style – the subject is first introduced by the dialogue, then expanded on in narrative when the character has to deal with it more.)

    Ack, sorry this is so long. Do you think certain styles of backstory have fallen out of fashion?

  • Dealing with backstory is one of the hardest things we face as writers, and it only gets more difficult with each subsequent book in a series. Like Donald, I love your examples, which illustrate perfectly the various methods you mention. I’ve used all of them, and I agree with you that each has its own pitfalls and benefits — imperfect solutions to a persistent problem. In the end, I suppose it comes back to the need for moderation. If we give our backstory in small enough doses, we minimize the risks inherent in each approach. If that makes sense . . .

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Wow. Thank you for a really comprehensive post. It looks like a great reference for any time I get stuck wondering how to work in some backstory.

    I’m wondering, though, which technique you might recommend for a troublesome spot in my WIP. It’s the first chapter we have from this POV and the protagonist already knows that a man has been murdered, but about halfway through the scene she learns that the dead man is the man who got her father executed when she was a child. But the information comes from a family member who would naturally only give the man’s name, with the full understanding that she’ll instantly make the connection herself… It’s driving me a bit crazy, because to the protagonist it’s a big, exciting shock, but to the reader is just that a man they already know is dead has been named. However, looking at your post again, I’m thinking that this family member is present at the murder (in the previous chapter), so perhaps working in a *little* bit of a family connection there might help? Actually, I might be able to drop that hint in with a line of dialogue….

  • Thank you for the interesting post! It’s made me think of how we can relate backstory to our readers in the best way possible. I think I use the dialogue method the most as that seems the most natural as long as it seems natural to the story.

  • Mindy, I really thought I’d do more backstory as a series went on. Instead, in this last book, I had two tiny scenes. Possibly because it gets harder to do them well, without repetition in the methodology and device. Or something. Anyway, surprisingly, less.

  • Razziecat

    This is a great post, I love the way you lay out the different ways to work backstory into a novel. Backstory is one of my favorite things to play with in writing–figuring how and where to place it, and how much to use. One of the best examples I can recall is Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Hallowed Hunt.” The main character carries a wolf spirit inside of him, and Bujold doles out the bits and pieces of how this happened to him a little at a time, building it up and weaving it into the main story. The backstory creates a foundation for the main story, brings in history and religion, ties into the two main characters’ romance, and connects to their dilemma and its solution. One of my favorite books, for so many reasons.

  • Finally posting some responses, now that I’m back from AFIDocs (an amazing documentary film festival…)

    sagablessed – I’m glad my examples worked for you! Of course, I’ll comment on responses next week (but I won’t be going through them, word for word, recommending changes.) And thanks for the recs on books that handle backstory well!

    Laura – Haven’t read the Barant, but I’ll check it out! I haven’t noticed that specific styles of backstory-telling have fallen out of relatively-recent fashion, but I do think that some work better to convey some types of information than others. As you note, dialog works best when there are two characters; otherwise, you need to have some pretty contorted “she thought to herself” moments. That wouldn’t work for stories where your character is purposely isolated from others… Of course, in “classic” literature, there were all sorts of storytelling techniques that are currently out of favor. Melville didn’t spend time worrying about how to incorporate backstory; he just dumped thousands of words of it into chapters on whaling… Most modern readers won’t have the patience for that!

    David – Your comment totally makes sense! If we overuse any one technique, we call attention to it, in ways that can be deadly…

    Hepseba – Alas, this is an area where it’s really hard to advise without having the full text in front of me. Without knowing everything you’ve already written, it’s almost impossible to say what you should now write; so much depends on the style of the book, the characterization of the narrator, the amount of information to be conveyed, the pace of the story, etc., etc., etc. It looks, though, as if you’ve puzzled out an answer for yourself!

    Mark – I’m glad that my post was useful for you! Some authors find dialog a *great* way to convey other information. Others find that the information-carrying task makes the dialog stiff and unnatural.

    Faith – You raise a great point. As the series goes on, a lot of the “backstory” is simply the “story” of the series. It’s not always necessary to relate the details once the character has been transformed by the past… (But yes, there’s a real challenge to find new ways to tell the same old story, when it’s mandatory to relate that information!)

    Razzie – Yay – I’m glad my examples worked for you! I’ll have to check out that Bujold!

  • Megan B.

    Interesting… Your definition of flashback does not include something that I was thinking of as flashback. I’ll give an example: On the show Lost, there were scenes set in the past, showing the lives of each character before they came to the island. These were not presented as memories, so by your definition, they were not flashbacks. My WIP uses scenes from the past in the same way that Lost used them. I was calling them flashbacks, but perhaps I was wrong.

    How would you define that particular way of presenting back story?

  • Megan – I *would* call those flashbacks. They show you what happened in the past, to characters that we know in the present. We see Hugo winning the lottery, and then he begins to suffer constant bad luck. Those are memories of his life, before the Island. I don’t think that a character needs to say, “Wow, I remember when…” to frame the flashback.

    (I wouldn’t say that all the events that happen in the *last* season are flashbacks. Those, I think, are parallel stories. But that all depends on how you read the overall story arc of the series.)

    Does that make my definition a bit clearer?

  • Megan B.

    Yeah, I guess I was just overthinking the way you worded it. :)

  • Lost will do that to you! :-)

  • Rhonda

    Hepseba:

    I don’t know if this will work with your story or not, but focussing on the reactions of the character upon learning the dead man’s name seems to me it would be reasonable, and would be a way to deepen characterization of that character. I would think it’s pretty normal to, for example, feel guilt over feeling glee (or even just relief) that somebody you hate is dead, because he’s dead and that’s awful but he caused the death of someone you love but… (The specifics of the feelings and reasons and rationalizations behind them of course being specific to your character’s situation.)

  • Rhonda – Good points! Thanks for chiming in to help solve others’ problems!