Novel Writing: Backstory
As I explained in my Hub on the critical first chapter, it's vital to throw your reader into your narrative right at the start of your novel, and not weigh them down with backstory. But on the other hand, back-story is essential for your audience to understand your characters and their motivations. So how do you know what to include, and how do you incorporate back story effectively?
What to Include - Relevance
"Backstory" is shorthand for "background story" - and it refers to the relevant history of your characters. Note I said relevant. Irrelevant background information has absolutely no place in your novel.
You have to be ruthless about this. It's hard enough to include essential history without slowing the narrative - squeezing in irrelevant details is the kiss of death. I know you've done all that research and it seems such a shame to waste it - but your readers couldn't care less, and will get bored.
Back-story is your novel's history - the story of what happened in the past, which led to the situation you've decided to write about. The difficulty, of course, is that there's rarely a clear-cut break between backstory and main story: your novel cuts just one slice out of a continuum that stretches all the way back to when your characters were born, and continues far beyond the end of your book.
Back-story explains why your protagonists behave the way they do.
Why is your heroine so touchy about her weight ? (because her ex left her for a skinny supermodel).
Why does your hero step in and stop some anonymous kids fighting? (because his brother died in a similar fight when he didn't intervene).
With that in mind, many novices think they have to start with the backstory, so the reader understands the later scenes. Too often, the result is a long, boring prologue or first chapter, consisting of nothing more than "scene setting". Because readers don't know what the scene is being set for, they have little incentive to keep reading!
The rule of thumb is,if in doubt, leave it out! For the first few pages, it doesn't matter if your reader doesn't know your character's background or motivations - in fact, it can work in your favour, because the lack of information will make the reader curious.
There are plenty of techniques which enable you to incorporate backstory into your main narrative as you go along (which we'll look at further on). It takes practice to blend them seamlessly into your story, but they're very effective when you do. So there's no need to start your story with tedious background. Instead, your novel should always start with your main story. Ask yourself, what is my novel's main event?
An Example of Too Much Backstory
To give you an example, a friend asked me to critique her novel about her family history. She felt it was worth telling, because her great-grandfather had been hanged for murdering his wife (although he maintained his innocence to the end), and that event had affected the family for generations.
Reading that short description, I'm sure you'll agree that her "main event" is how her great-grandfather came to be arrested and tried for murder. If I were writing the novel, I'd be spoiled for choice on how to start! For instance, I could open with:
- the murder itself, concealing the identity of the murderer; or
- great-grandfather on the run (it was an exciting chase) or
- a Prologue set in the courtroom during the trial - then Chapter 1 would go back to a scene where the wife is alive, so we get to know her before the dastardly deed is done.
Instead, my friend started her novel with a prologue - about her family history. When they arrived in the area (generations before great-grandfather), a long list of who married whom and when, how many children they had, how their religious beliefs were formed, how they lived etc etc. Most of Chapter 1 then sets the scene on her great-grandfather's homestead before the murder actually takes place.
Yawn! Most readers would give up wading their way through all that, and never discover the cracking yarn waiting in later chapters.
That's an extreme example of how back-story can ruin the opening to a novel! Tha Prologue would've made a good Appendix, but it had no place at the beginning.
How to Include It
Once you've decided what the relevant bits of backstory are, and when your reader needs to know them, the question is - how do you include them?
There are several techniques you can use, which we'll look at next. But whichever you choose, do it gradually. Never dump all your backstory into the narrative in one solid, indigestible lump.
The most obvious way to include backstory is a flashback. The big problem with flashbacks is that, strictly speaking, they should be written in the pluperfect tense. If that doesn't mean much to you, it's because it's a tense we rarely use in daily life, so it feels unnatural to most people!
Pluperfect (or past perfect) is used to show that the events you're describing are happening before the events in the novel, which are already in the past. If you just tell the flashback in ordinary past tense, the reader can get confused and think the events are happening at the same time as the rest of the novel, and then it will make no sense.
Here's an example:
He dragged an old barrel into the corner of the cellar to set on while he got his breath back. He couldn't hear his pursuers. Time to rest awhile and work out what to do next. He barely understood what had happened.
She had been dead when he opened the door. He hadn't even had time to cross the floor to touch her, when...
Notice the "had's"? That's pluperfect. If you said "she was dead when he opened the door", the reader might think he was opening a door in the cellar, right then and there. The pluperfect is essential to show these are events he's thinking back to - but you can see it can become clunky. And if it's a long flashback, there's always a slightly awkward transition back to the main narrative at the end.
That's why using other techniques to introduce backstory is generally preferable.
One of the great things about modern third person subjective writing is that you write inside the head of your characters, not standing outside them. That gives you the chance to report their thoughts, as well as their actions.
Think about it - how often do you go over events in your head, or beat yourself up over something, or mentally complain that circumstances have forced you into a particular action? You can use that natural tendency in your characters. Here's an example:
The bathwater was too hot. Gabrielle perched on the side of the bath while she ran the cold, swishing the water with her hand now and then to test the temperature.
Her dress was beyond redemption. She was almost glad, in spite of the cost. Only her mother would choose a scarlet dress for a redhead. She stepped out of it. The cool air struck her skin and she hurried to climb into the warm water. It came almost to her neck, warm, silky and fragrant with bath salts.
She closed her eyes. Let it wash away all trace of Bertie!
She raised her hand out of the water. Blue marks were already developing where he had gripped her wrist. Would she have bruises on her face too, where he’d clamped his hand over her mouth—she dunked herself under the water, head and all, as if to hide from the memory.
It didn’t work. She surfaced, and a sob escaped her.
Pull yourself together, Gabby. Chin up!
That’s what her grandmother would have said. But she would have said it in a kindly way, and given her a warm hug and a hot cup of chocolat for comfort. But Grand’maman was dead, lost in the Great War, along with darling Papa. There was no home for her in Bordeaux now, and precious little hope of comfort in the poky Wimbledon flat she now called home. She couldn’t expect any sympathy from Mama—just an interrogation.
In this fairly short internal monologue, I've told you Gabrielle is a redhead, she's French, her nickname is Gabby, she doesn't get on with her mother, and is exiled from France.
Unless you're writing a romance, though, you don't want to wallow in internal monologue, because it can slow down your narrative.
A more lively, and very simple, way to weave in backstory is dialogue. Your protagonist could talk about old times with her friend, or be interrogated by a new player. You could have two minor characters gossiping about your heroine's past, or someone reading out an old newspaper article.
There are so many ways to do this, I'm not going to attempt an example - now it's over to you!
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