As we established in part one of this short series, backstory should be used sparingly, sprinkled throughout the novel, but rarely included in the opening.
Super agent and writing instructor Donald Maass explains:
Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down. (The Fire in Fiction, p. 208 – emphasis added).
The rule of thumb is to give backstory only when the reader needs it.
But suspense author Brandilyn Collins adds an important element to the aspect of “need.” Not only do readers need answers, they need more questions:
We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers. (“A Bit on Backstory” by Brandilyn Collins, September 22, 2005)
Raising questions in the right way makes readers curious and keeps them turning pages to find out.
The next logical question follows: what exactly is the right way?
When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefully written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. (Ibid.)
Author and writing instructor Hallie Ephron elaborates on ways to incorporate backstory into fiction in a recent Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory” (May/June 2011).
The first two approaches are unique to either a first person or an omniscient point of view. The last four are helpful regardless of the perspective.
Dialogue ranks high on the list, but Ephron gives this caution: “Never force words into characters’ mouths … Use dialogue to convey backstory only when it feels natural and works dramatically.”
Maass explains this idea of backstory “working dramatically.” In examining an example of backstory in a Robin Hobbs novel, he notes that the delivery of backstory does more than give facts about the past. Instead it reveals a conflicted character. He concludes by saying, “Hobbs uses the past to create present conflict. That is the secret of making backstory work” (The Fire in Fiction, p. 210 – emphasis added).
Another way of layering backstory into a novel is to introduce a document — a newspaper article, letter, will, journal, photograph, email, title to property, bill and so on. Such items can be handled in several ways. One possibility is to reproduce it verbatim. A second is to have a character summarize the contents.
In an earlier version of my first novel, I incorporated this document technique, though slightly altered. I’ve since taken the passage out because it came in the first chapter and clearly interrupted the story, but it will serve as an example, good and bad.
In the story, the main character was standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but the overhang under him breaks away and he tumbles toward the rocks. He’s able to stop himself and find a spot on a ledge, then this:
Easing his tense muscles, he settled against the cliff and glanced out toward the ocean where low, dense clouds bulldozed toward shore.
Ironic! If he died like this, people might suspect he had jumped. He shook his head. How would the headlines read? Something like, “Basketball star plunges to his death.” And the lead? “In a possible suicide, James David Thompson, former NBA star for the expansion Scorchers, fell to his death yesterday south of Crystal Cove State Park near Todd Point.”
Well, yes, the imagined document works to give readers information, but do they need to know this very minute what his full name is? Or even that he is a former NBA player or that he’s south of Crystal Cove? Not really.
In addition, because of the disruption and the distraction, readers may stop caring about the present action — the character perched on a cliff above rocks and an angry sea.
And where’s the tension in the backstory? Likely the article’s wrong implication would create tension for the character, but does that translate to tension for the reader? Not really, in part because the article may or may not be written, and because the reader doesn’t have a reason yet to care for this character’s reputation.
The example, then, works to show how a document, in this case, an imagined one, can be used to layer in backstory, but it also shows why backstory doesn’t belong in the beginning of the story.
There are a couple more techniques authors can use to add backstory appropriately, but we’ll save those for next time.