Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Backstory is almost a swear word in some writing circles, sometimes to the point of actively campaigning to banish it. It bogs down the narrative, say some, if you have too much backstory at the beginning, it usually means you started in the wrong place. This may be true in some cases, but not necessarily. Instead of a ban, why not learn how to use it effectively?
Often, the histories of your characters are not used in a way that intrigues the reader, but rather to inform them, yet using it to tempt your audience further into your web enhances your story and makes it irresistible to put down. In fact, I’d say backstory can be one of the most important tools in the writing desk to hook your reader as oppose to something that will put them off.
The key to this technique lies in two areas:
Avoiding reams and reams of backstory that mostly indulges the author’s love of his own world building and his lack of self-confidence in the reader’s ability to follow the plot if he doesn’t outright explain every inch of it. In many cases, less is more.
Mastering the art of writing in the fictional present day (where the story starts), and sticking to a forward moving plot — i.e. write about events as they unfold, not in retrospective narrative. This relies on the author resisting the temptation to drag the timeline backwards too often in early chapters to provide context and motivation — your characters in action. Show that they work at a major firm rather than Tell the reader, even if only by having them remove their company badge from the coffee table.
In regards to no. 2, this is a strong reason why writers are advised not to Tell, because all-to-often Telling’s default mode involves writing in retrospect, removing the reader from the immediacy of the scene. I won’t go into the intricacies of that today, but just bear in mind that too much jerking backwards and forwards in time can seriously affect the pacing – just as we move forward, there’s that pantomime hook jerking the reader off stage, showing them the strings and pulleys that move the scenery about. It can be very disjointing for the reader, and the veil you are trying so hard to maintain between reader and author will fall.
This is why it’s important to get a handle of how to write forward moving scenes for the majority of your novel. Then you can work out how to weave in the backstory so that it creates curiosity in the reader rather than jerks them between timelines.
In reality, backstory can enhance the intrigue and pep up the narrative tension, depending on how it is executed.
Example; instead of:
They had been best friends and arch rivals from years back when they had competed not only for every badge, trophy, and medal but also for the heart of the one girl who made Morten feel like he walked on air. But it was Morten who had triumphed and spent the next six years in her life, her heart and her bed. Edward had never forgiven him for it, had sworn he would one day take his revenge on Morten, but then they had graduated and moved on with their lives, and Morten hadn’t given it another thought.
Try something like:
Morten caught sight of the lanky form, rod iron in stature, and he let out a soft hiss.
‘What’s the matter?’ Travis asked.
Morten bristled but said nothing. He gave a curt nod, indicating the tall man with the upward tilted nose who stood across the room: Edward, and his all too familiar sense of superiority. As it had years before, it felt both comfortable and sullying to be near him.
‘Do you know him?’ Travis asked.
‘You could say that.’
Before Travis could push for further information, Edward Vance periscoped in their direction. His sharp, dark eyes pinpointed Morten instantly and he smiled in that way Morten knew only he could see. This time, though, instead of the jovially piquant rivalry they once knew, the whole effect seemed hardened and serious. Even after all this time, Edward still hadn’t forgiven him.
This way the reader knows there is backstory, they know it’s not a happy history, I hope it comes across that they once knew each other intimately, but by not explaining why, which is always the temptation with these things, you up the tension, and entice the reader to continue on and find out why they are enemies. You are effectively setting up a question in the reader’s mind – what hasn’t he forgiven him for? And questions always need answers (which you must deliver, at some point, but not yet).
In the above example, by bringing the backstory into the present day scene you are incorporating the emotions of old wounds and bringing them closer to the reader, rather than providing a more pedestrian retrospective approach. And notice how, although the first example gives more context, its over-explanatory nature makes it less intriguing. Wouldn’t you agree that, perhaps, drip feeding those details (i.e. foreshadowing) as the plot moves along could create a more devastating effect? What if Morton and Edward’s resentments brewed until they had a showdown and it came to light that Edward had actually turned the lady down because of his friendship with Morten and thus led to her and Morton becoming a couple? What if, in a final goodbye, Edward had slept with her before she went to Morten and the child she had with Morten wasn’t his at all? Everything Morton believed about himself and his relationship with his family up until that point could come crashing down around his ears.
And that would be called drama.
I often read stories that, just when they begin to up the pace, the energy is swiped away by a paragraph of explanation. And that is why backstory often doesn’t work because it is so frequently presented in an explanatory way as if it were a footnote, a step out of one fictional reality and into another. It is easy information that doesn’t make the reader work for any reward, doesn’t engage their imagination, doesn’t engage in the ‘now’ of the story. While your action should inflate the tension, exposition deflates it. Just think of a story where it comes to the crisis point and the hero/ine finds out their close companion, whom they’ve trusted throughout events so far, is, in fact, a traitor. What happens? All the tension suddenly breaks and the protagonist is left on their knees, devastated in defeat (either literally or metaphorically). Backstory creates drama when it is treated as a revelation, not an explanation.
So this deflation need not be the case. As the plot moves forward, the backstory can be weaved in to help dramatise the real-time story as it begins to connect the dots, and incrementally build on the anticipation of a plot high.
A fine example of how to do this comes from an excellent YA fantasy book called Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. During the whole of the first quarter of the book, it is the question of her heroine’s true identity that hooks the readers and pulls them through the choppy waters of the developing plot. Who is she and what do all these strange things about her mean? Even she doesn’t know, and when she does find out, boy, is it with a bang! By that time, there’s no way you are turning around and searching for the exit points – you are in it for the whole ride. But had that backstory not been used the way it is, had it been explained from the beginning, there wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same amount of bang for your buck.
If you look at murder mysteries, much of the drama comes from the revelation of backstory — what happened and who was involved before the murder took place? That’s an infallible case in favour of using backstory. And would those would-be banishers out there really want to wipe out a whole genre of perfectly good popular fiction?
But backstory isn’t always used to create intrigue. There is more adroit to this baby than first meets the eye.
In Girl With A Pearl Earring, Chevalier uses it in the beginning of the story to bring the setting of Delft alive with her heroine’s childhood memories and to symbolise Griet’s departure from childhood towards the new grownup life set out before her. She also uses it to bring out Griet’s inner conflict that she is stepping down a rung on the class ladder, which really sets up the whole domino track for the story’s conflict.
In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the backstory is the real story, but presented as the subplot of the seeming front story – the incident that launches the protagonist into a series of actions and keeps him motivated. The front story needs to be there in order to bring the real story to light.
So, you see, backstory and front plots interplay in storytelling all the time, but, as with all techniques in writing, it needs to be enlisted to heighten the drama, not wipe it out.
And those who don’t use it, want it, or have a blanket ban on it? It’s likely that they don’t know how to do it properly.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
Go over a story where you have used a lot of backstory in Telling narrative. Copy and paste either a large section or all of it and create a separate editable document. Strip out all of the backstory you find by cutting and pasting those details into another separate document.
How much present moment action do you have? Enough to create a coherent and complete scene?
Now ask yourself how much of the backstory you removed needs to be in that scene to make it work.
Rewrite the scene by showing your character in action and drip feeding only those necessary details, using implication where you can to hint at past events, relationships or secrets, much in the same way of the Edward/Morton example.
If you’re feeling brave, post your rewrites in the comments box below!