Backstory is important. It gives essential context to what’s happening in the story. So why does it have such a bad rep?
Because writers are heavy-handed with it. It’s a garnish – not a main course.
The majority of badly handled backstory I see is at the beginning of the book. A friend of mine, Jenny Hansen, taught me an important lesson about this. We were in crit group, and we were discussing the right place to start what turned out to be my novel, Nothing Sweeter. She kept saying, “We don’t care.” After around my tenth try I was about to get violent, when she explained. Everything I was telling her was great stuff, but the reader doesn’t care, until they like the character, and want to know more.
Think about it. You meet someone at a cocktail party. He starts in, telling you his life story. We’ve all met someone like that, right? How long does it take your eyes to glaze over? Exactly.
When you put backstory in the first three chapters of a book, you are that guy.
The key is getting the reader to know the protagonist, before you add backstory, rather than getting the reader to know the protagonist THROUGH backstory.
How do you do that?
I’m going to use one of my favorite films, to illustrate.
Good Will Hunting
Everyone’s seen that movie? In my opinion, every single beginning writer on the planet should, because it illustrates great storytelling. Anyway, when the film opens, we meet Will Hunting. A young, blue collar ruffian from the city with a shitty job as a janitor. Nothing exciting about that. A stereotypical caricature, right?
Right. But. He’s a janitor at Harvard. But one of the first scenes, we see him washing a hallway floor, then stopping to solve a theoretical math problem.
How could you NOT want to know more? Think about the movie. We know, early on, that Will has anger issues. Heck, he’s in therapy for them, the entire movie. But when do we find out exactly what they are? Where they came from? Almost at the end – when Will breaks up with his girlfriend. How do we find out? Not a flashback to the abuse. Not a long drawn out soliloquy. Its 5 lines, shouted in a fight scene. And it raised the hair on my arms.
That proved to me that the actual events aren’t as important as what they mean to my characters; how adding pressure and letting the past explode can work SO much better than telling ever would.
That movie never burdened you with backstory, and yet, it was the superstructure of the whole plot. By the time you discovered the backstory, you were dying to know it.
That is fantastic storytelling. And that’s what you want to do in your novel.
Okay, so how does the reader get to know the protagonist in the beginning of your story, without a backstory dump?
A tool a good friend of mine calls – Little Tells.
Hook the reader. Offer him hints, enticing detail that makes him sit up and think, ‘Oh, what’s that about?’ Make him want to read on, to find out.
This is the beginning of my first book, Her Road Home:
Running away from home at twenty-eight – that’s gotta be a first.
Keeping her movements broad and slow, the motorcycle responded to Samantha Crozier’s shifting weight. Waterproof gear snugged around her, repelling the worst of the weather. Through the visor of her full-faced helmet, the world flowed past in shades of gray and the water-shattered reflections of passing cars.
Sam’s mind moved in broad sweeps, but unlike the bike, it didn’t respond well to direction, drifting onto dangerous curves that ended in blind alleys.
I’m not running. Ohio just didn’t fit me anymore. Not after Dad died.
That’s it. I set the scene – a girl on a motorcycle in the rain. I set the tone – a gray day, gray thoughts, and a hint that hopefully entices the reader to want to know more. Then I jump into the story – Sam wrecks her bike on the next page. What’s she running from? The reader doesn’t find out until page 120.
We Don’t Want to Know
Readers actually don’t want to know everything about a character’s past right away. Tell them too much too fast, and there’s nothing for them to discover as the story unfolds. They want to be surprised. They want to wonder why your protagonist is scared of bright sunlight (when he’s clearly not a vampire). This wonder will help hook them and make them want to see what happens next.
What do you think? Do you have any backstory tips for us?