Category Archives: Backstory

Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

3 Comments

Filed under Action, Backstory, Plot

Revisions Make All The Difference

1402994_hidden waterfallFrom time to time a novelist needs to change something in a story. Perhaps a minor character is flat or comes across as a stereotype and needs to be fleshed out with his own personality or backstory. Perhaps a scene needs to be added to do the work that a piece of telling narrative had done. What writers should remember is this: these changes make a difference, not just to that one scene or character, but to the entire novel.

I’ll speak from personal experience to illustrate this point. In one of my earliest drafts of my journey-quest fantasy, I realized that all my characters were single. It’s not a realistic scenario, and it’s a problem I’ve noticed in a number of TV programs. Hence, I decided to give a couple of my characters spouses. In one instance the man’s wife even joined the team on the quest.

Immediately everything about that character changed. He had a new motivation–not just his own well-being but that of his wife. He had a new relationship to cultivate, not just the one he’d established with the protagonist. He had new behavior patterns, new interests, and . . . more people in his backstory. There were his in-laws, of course, but what about children? Yes, I decided, it would be natural for he and his wife, given their ages and how long they’d been married, to have children. But what became of them? Suddenly I had a new plot point to go along with this revision.

And speaking of plot points, I recently made a change in my manuscript that added a point of view and several chapters. This addition seemed like the best way to get rid of a chunk of narrative summary that wasn’t working. Except, when I fleshed out the events and created a scene, I expanded the point of view character as well. The scene required it.

It also required that I kill one of the minor characters in those chapters, someone the point of view character had been close to.

Could I simply insert those chapters into my manuscript and leave my point of view character unchanged the rest of the way? Not if the story is to seem realistic. When someone we know well dies, we grieve, and the grief often lingers and surprises us when we least expect it. My character, therefore, can not soldier on as if nothing significant happened in those add-on chapters. She needs to respond differently to certain lines of dialogue. She needs to have changes in her motivation and behavior and countenance.

One revision leads to many more. Or it should. If we are simply giving a character a wife without changing him in any other way, our revision isn’t real. It’s simply window dressing. We can’t give a character a new motivation without it playing out throughout the rest of the novel in her actions and speech.

We can’t promote a character to a higher rank without it affecting how he talks to those who are now his subordinates. We can’t give a character a rebel father without it influencing his politics, his choices. We can’t make a character power hungry without having him struggle to control his desire, or succumb to it.

In short, one change needs to start a cascade of change if revision is to work.

4 Comments

Filed under Backstory, Characters, Revision

After The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages alerted novelists to the need to create an intriguing opening. But the truth is, writers need to keep readers interested beyond that first scene. After the initial intrigue, what will keep them turning pages?

A number of pitfalls can work against this goal: glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in a prologue (quotes from Hallie Ephron, The Writer, October 2008).

“Gore, profanity or explicit sex” seem self-explanatory. These things pull readers out of the story.

“Glumps” or Long paragraphs of backstory or even of description work against the story because there is little tension, the element agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) says is necessary on every page.

Newer writers often believe it is vital for readers to understand what came before, what the character or story world is all about, or the story won’t make sense.

The problem is, if readers are bored with these “necessities,” they won’t stick around. Instead, writers need to trust their readers and unfold the backstory and descriptions as the story takes place.

Regarding the flash forward, Ephron says it is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz. An exciting flash forward, however, will simply serve as a sharp contrast to the lackluster events that put the story in motion–not a proven way of keeping readers turning pages.

Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, what should writers be sure to include after the first five pages if we are to keep readers engaged?

First we must create characters readers care about. Quirky characters may be interesting, but they may also be hard to connect with. On the other hand, bland characters that are floating through the life of their story aren’t interesting. The writer must find the balance.

In my reading, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun–even funny–and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can cheer for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

7 Comments

Filed under Backstory, Characters, Story

Curiosity Versus Confusion

Some clarity creates curiosity; too little creates confusion

Some time ago I read an article in the Writer’s Digest by Steve Almond in which he stated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Initially this seems to clash with much advice about backstory. Writers don’t need to put everything up front, we say, and readers are far more patient than we think. In fact, they enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much backstory at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it will happen if a reader is confused.

Like so much in life, there is a tenuous balance. What information should a writer give and what should he withhold?

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. First, writers muddle readers with conflicting facts or details. If the master bedroom is on the right in chapter one, then it must also be on the right in chapter five. If the heroine is afraid of heights, then she shouldn’t volunteer to scale the ladder to retrieve the ball.

Confusion also results from improper motivation — when the reader isn’t given enough information to understand why a character is acting as he is. In the example above, the character may have a compelling motive for overcoming her fear to retrieve the ball, but it must be believable and compelling. “My dad will kill me if he sees that ball on the roof,” isn’t a good motive, unless in fact, the father is abusive and this has been clearly established by this point in the story.

Third, readers can be confused when the writer does not ground the story in the concrete. The following illustration is a variation of one Steve Almond gave in his article.

    He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to that question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some information (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next paragraph, I suspect confusion may set in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

Finally, writers can baffle readers by putting something into a scene that has not been either foreshadowed or previously introduced.

If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll transport himself to another place using his magic power — the magic power the reader had no idea he possessed.

Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

In other words, writers should deliver specifics on a need to know basis. 😀

Leave a comment

Filed under Backstory, Writing Rules

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 4

In the previous three parts to this short series, I’ve discussed the importance of making backstory a natural, organic part of the story; two techniques to use suggested by Hallie Ephron in her Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory”; and a more detailed explanation of how to convey backstory through dialogue.

That brings us to Ms. Ephron’s final two techniques: memories and a flashback scene.

A character’s memories can convey backstory without bringing the story action to a halt if those memories fit in with the present scene. The idea is to use something in the story present to trigger a memory.

A memory trigger can be a loud sound like a church bell

The trigger can be a sound — something jarring or disruptive like a car alarm going off. Or it can be a smell such as baking bread or a visual like an antique tea service, just like Grandma’s. The objects or events that can initiate a character’s memory are endless.

The important thing in making the memory seem natural is to avoid calling attention to it. Skilled novelists don’t announce a memory.

Here’s an example of a memory that doesn’t transition smoothly into or out of the memory.

    Ramon heard the loud gong of the church bell. He thought a minute. Yes, he’d heard something just like that bell years ago, when he was only a boy. He used to visit his Tío Miguel every Sunday, and the bell in the church down the block rang so loud, they sometimes had to stop talking until it ended. Ramon shook himself out of his reverie.

Here’s the same memory written with smoother transitions rather than announcements.

    The loud gong of the church bell sounded again, and Ramon stopped talking. Not to listen, but from habit. Years ago, when he visited Tío Miguel on Sundays, the church bell down the block rang so loud they couldn’t hear each other over the repeated bong-bong. They’d learned to go silent and wait, just as he did now.

The final method of providing readers with necessary backstory is by creating a flashback — a scene set in an earlier time. As with the memory technique, the transitions are critical. But flashbacks have several things that are different.

First, the verb tense changes, at least initially, so the reader understands where the scene fits. If the author is using present tense, then a flashback is in past tense. If the author is writing in past tense, then the flashback begins and ends in past perfect.

Because of the repeated “had” necessary to form the past perfect, using it throughout the flashback can become distracting and cumbersome. Consequently, after a few sentences the author can revert to past tense without confusing the reader, then switch back to past perfect in the last line of the flashback to signal that the reader is about to return to the present story time.

Here’s an example from HUNTED with the flashback in boldface type:


    Ant-prickles raced up and down Jim’s arms. Not long ago he’d thought about staying behind to search the tunnels on his own, but now the idea of leaving the Abador-faithful seemed as foolhardy as the stunt he had pulled as a six-year-old kid during a family camping trip in the Colorado Rockies. Kyle and Eddie took off one morning on a big-boy hike, and Mom said Jim had to stay in camp. When she wasn’t looking, though, he snuck off after his brothers, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t catch up. He’d been too proud to call after them, too guilty to yell for help from his parents. He wandered around lost in the woods until dark when at last his dad had found him.
    Jim brushed a hand up and down his arm. Childish. He’d survived that day on his own and outgrown his fear of being alone in a strange place. If something happened to separate him from the others here in Efrathah, he could make.

In longer flashbacks, the scene may be written with dialogue just like any other scene. In the example above, then, instead of saying “Mom said Jim had to stay … ” the text would read: Mom said, “Jimmy, you stay here in camp with your father and me.”

This is the second factor that distinguishes a flashback from a memory, however short — it is a scene, not straight narrative.

Handling backstory correctly can make or break a story. Perhaps the best way to learn to weave it into the fabric of a novel is to examine how other writers integrate it. See what works and what doesn’t, then use the good as a model for your own writing.

2 Comments

Filed under Backstory

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 3

Learning to handle backstory correctly is vital. Some agents and editors talk about it as the element that shows an author is either a competent professional or still in the “learning” stage. Consequently, I’d like to take a closer look at how to weave backstory into fiction using dialogue and internal monologue.

By way of review, backstory delivered in dialogue (or via any other technique) must first be necessary to the story at that particular point, and not a moment sooner. Second, it must contribute to present conflict.

While I believe those points to be true, I don’t believe they show a writer exactly how backstory should fit into dialogue, so I’m backtracking a bit today to give a few basics.

Backstory must fit the story situation

Backstory must be a fitting topic of conversation for the characters in their present circumstances. In the middle of a battle, for example, asking a buddy if he’s ever been horseback riding wouldn’t fit.

Now if two bandits were looking for a way to escape a police sweep and spotted a couple horses in a pasture up ahead, one asking the other about his past experience with horses would be natural.

Second, backstory must add information that the characters don’t already know. It’s tempting to use the “gentle reminder” as a way of conveying backstory, but experienced novelists resist. Here’s an example of “reminder speech.”

“You remember, Jack. We were just kids when Uncle Sal moved in with us for a summer, and that’s when the trouble started.”

Such a reminder nudge happens in real life, but in fiction it almost always comes across as the author talking to the reader rather than the speaker talking to Jack.

Third, the dialogue needs to be worded in the characters’ voices, delivered with the emotion appropriate for the moment. If a character speaks in short sentences or fragments, then the backstory needs to be delivered in the same way.

If the character uses particular jargon, whether regional or job oriented, those words should come into play when appropriate. The main thing is, the characters should sound like individuals. They shouldn’t all sound like the author. And when they deliver lines of backstory, the same must be true.

Fourth, the backstory should be part of a give-and-take conversation, not one lengthy speech. In real life, people rarely string together substantial chunks of information. We tend to interrupt each other, to ask questions, even to move to tangential topics rather than steering a straight course. In other words, the conversation needs to develop organically.

Lastly, appropriate internal monologue — character thoughts — can be interspersed throughout the conversation to give added snippets of backstory.

Below is an example of backstory delivered through dialogue and some internal monologue, taken from HUNTED, the first book in the fantasy The Lore of Efrathah (a story I know well enough to navigate quickly to backstory. 😉 )

Here’s the set up for this scene: Jim has fallen into a parallel world. Among the exiles who found him in a system of tunnels is a young woman he’s attracted to. However, he anticipates returning to his world as soon as possible, so is trying to resist the attraction. Nevertheless, after a meeting, he stays behind to apologize to Elisá (pronounced l-e-SA) for what transpired in an earlier encounter.

Elisá stared up into his eyes as if searching for something she couldn’t find. “Of course. Friends forgive each other such things. You are my friend, are you not?”

“Yes, absolutely! It’s just that, in my world, friends aren’t always that … sure of each other.”

As she stepped toward the exit, Jim took her elbow to guide her into the maze of tunnels.

“Your world sounds complicated.” She pointed the way, and together they sauntered toward the central cavern.

“It’s probably just me. I wish I had friends that I felt sure of, but most of the people I spend time with just want a piece of me.”

Elisá glanced up at him from the corner of her large chocolaty eyes. “A piece of you!”

He chuckled softly. “Doesn’t make much sense, I guess. Back home athletes are looked up to. So lots of people want to get our autograph, have their picture taken with us, that sort of thing. And we’re paid well, so people we know have ‘suggestions’ for how we should spend our money. It’s hard to tell if any of them are really friends.”

She shook her head the same way Jim’s sister had in high school when she didn’t approve of someone he was hooking up with.

His sister. He needed to remember to treat Elisá like his sister.

“But your family must be different,” she said.

“I have great parents. I just don’t spend a lot of time with them, though I want that to change.”

“Anyone else you can be sure of?”

“Kyle — he’s my oldest brother. My sister Karen. I used to think I could count on my other brother Eddie, too.”

He rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain how the conversation had stalled on him. “What about you? Are you close to your family?”

The scene continues, then, with some of Elisá’s backstory.

How well do you think this segment succeeded, based on the tips outlined above? Can you see places in your story where you can deliver backstory through dialogue? Were these tips helpful in showing you ways to make that dialogue natural and organic?

3 Comments

Filed under Backstory, Dialogue, Internal Monologue

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 2

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?

Collins again:

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Backstory, Dialogue

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 1

A recent Writer’s Digest article, “Building Backstory” by Larry Brooks, stated that a novelist should show only ten percent of his character’s backstory — the “iceberg principle” he called it. Suspense author and writing instructor Brandilyn Collins holds herself to a firm rule about backstory — none in the opening chapters.

Why such categorical statements about backstory? But perhaps our first question should be, what is backstory?

Mr. Brooks succinctly identifies backstory as “what went before and behind the actual [storytime] event.” Brandilyn’s definition is a bit broader: “backstory is anything that isn’t current action,” possibly including description.

Quite frankly, all that before and behind and not action is boring. Until the reader has a reason to know the “what happened before” information, backstory comes across as superfluous. It isn’t moving the plot forward, but rather, holding it back. Some readers might even be tempted to skip backstory.

Old style fairy tales usually began with backstory, and novels of yesteryear often did as well. Today’s faster-paced fiction, however, requires a different approach.

Brandilyn gives a clear rule of thumb: use backstory “only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action.”

Let me illustrate this with the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury. As written, the story begins this way:

Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The emperor’s love for clothes was well known. Traders, merchants and weavers from far and wide would bring fine silks, flowered brocades and softest satins to sell to the Emperor, knowing he would buy even the most expensive cloth if it caught his fancy. One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, arrived in the Emperor’s city and asked to meet him. The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor to himself. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

The Emperor in his imaginary new clothes.

I marked the backstory in reddish brown. The actual inciting incident was the arrival of the two con men.

But, you may be thinking, the reader needs to know the facts in those opening paragraphs. Yes, and no. The reader doesn’t need to know all of it right away.

Nor does the backstory need to appear together in one lump sum. Instead, the facts detailing what came before (the emperor spending his days thinking about and buying new clothes) or what is behind the story (the two men are crooks) can be sprinkled throughout as they are needed. Hence, the opening of this fairy tale could go something like this:

One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, came to a city ruled by an Emperor famous for his love of beautiful clothes. At once they asked to meet him.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor who spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

Clearly there is more backstory that needs to be included. Based on this opening, the reader would not yet know that the two men are crooks, but that’s one of the advantages of weaving backstory in rather than delivering the goods ahead of time.

The reader is left to wonder if the two men claiming to be weavers have some magic ability or if they are duping the unsuspecting emperor.

The question makes the story more interesting and creates curiosity. The reader will want to continue reading if for no other reason than to find out the answer to the questions the missing backstory creates.

10 Comments

Filed under Backstory