Making Your Reader Love Backstory

By Randy Ingermanson

Con’t from August 19th Newsletter discussing how to create a backstory that your readers beg for… Not getting our newsletter? Easy peasy, email us and we’ll put you on the list!

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is the sequence of thoughts that pass through a viewpoint character’s mind. The reader can hear these, either as word-for-word thoughts or else as the gist of what the character is thinking. Either way, this is a fine way to give your reader little snippets about your character’s backstory.

The key thing here is to treat interior monologue backstory like salt. A little is good — it makes you thirsty. A lot makes you gag.

If you’re going to use interior monologue this way, make the backstory references necessary to the character’s line of thinking, and keep them short.

Dialogue

Inexperienced writers often launch a long stretch of backstory in dialogue by having one character begin, “As you know…”

The problem is that nobody in real life ever tells somebody else what they both know. This kind of backstory stops your story cold. The reason is that there’s no conflict. They both already know everything.

If you want to tell some of your backstory using dialogue, drive it with conflict. Maybe one of the characters knows and doesn’t want to tell, whereas the other character doesn’t know and desperately needs to.Or maybe one character is about to do something stupid, and the other one can only prevent it by giving up some backstory.

There are plenty of ways to play out some backstory through dialogue so that you maintain a high level of conflict.

Remember: no conflict, no story. So your dialogue must have conflict. If you keep the conflict high, you can give your reader unlimited amounts of backstory in dialogue.

A cross-examination of a witness in a courtroom is a classic powerful way to use dialogue to reveal backstory. The dialogue itself is frontstory. The information revealed in the dialogue is mostly backstory. But naturally, it has a huge impact on the frontstory.

 

Narrative Summary

Sometimes the most efficient way to give the reader some backstory is just to tell her. Narrative summary is efficient. It’s also boring. If you’re going to tell the backstory this way, keep it as short as possible and put some effort into making it as interesting as possible, because this is where you’re most likely to lose your reader.

Tom Clancy is famous for giving the reader large doses of backstory early in his books. His novel The Hunt for Red October has 12 pages of solid backstory in narrative summary, beginning on page 30.

Did Tom make a mistake? His millions of fans will tell you he got it right. The backstory begins after a very strong start, in which a Soviet submarine commander kills his own political officer at the beginning of a cruise, and then announces a bold and daring mission to his crew. The commander is committing treason, and the reader needs a spectacularly good reason why. The backstory provides that reason. Now the reader is on the commander’s side.

If you’re going to use narrative summary, do it after a strong action scene, when the reader needs a bit of a break anyway. Use it to explain some of the questions the reader might have.

 

Flashback

Flashbacks are often vilified by writing teachers. I don’t see any good reson to avoid flashbacks, so long as the reader feels the need for some backstory.

A flashback is, in fact, a great way to show the reader some backstory using all the techniques of frontstory.

My favorite example of flashback is the series of memories that Professor Snape gives Harry Potter in the 7th and final book of the Harry Potter series. Here at last, after thousands of pages, we learn the real secrets of Snape’s past, why he hates Harry, and . . . why he loves him.

A flashback has an entry point (where the viewpoint character flashes back to the past) and an exit point (where the character returns to the present).

Generally, these are tied together by some object that somehow triggers the memory of the past. In the case of the Potter flashbacks, the triggering object is the “Pensieve” which acts as a portal into other people’s memories.

 

A Nonlinear Timeline

Sometimes you simply tell the story out of order. This is different than a flashback, which always has an entry point and an exit point.

When you use a nonlinear timeline, you can insert a time-stamp to indicate the date. Audrey Niffenegger uses a nice twist on this technique in The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the dates aren’t that important, but the characters’ ages are.

You can also use a header that says something like, “Six weeks earlier.” John Locke uses this technique in his novel Saving Rachel, at the point where he switches protagonists.

The first two-thirds of Locke’s book features Sam Case, who is having a very bizarre day — he’s forced to choose whether his wife or his new mistress is going to die.

The final third of the book features a different protagonist, and begins with the words, “Two days earlier, 9:30 am…”

The book then replays things and fills in some essential backstory that Sam Case doesn’t know.

In some cases, you can simply jump back a number of years without any warning at all. Mario Puzo does this in Part 3 of The Godfather, which takes Don Corleone back to the age of 12 and replays in fast-forward his life for several decades to show how he became the Godfather.

Modern readers are smart and don’t mind this kind of leaping around through time, as long as they care about the story, and as long as they know where they are on the time-line.

 

Research

In some stories, the plot revolves around figuring out what happened in the past. This is obviously true for mysteries, where the detective is looking for clues.

It’s also true in some kinds of thrillers. An example is The Davinci Code, where the protagonist must learn the secrets of the holy grail in order to stay alive.

The key thing is to make the research essential to the frontstory. Then success means learning the backstory.

So what do you do if your story has too much backstory up front?

That’s not so hard. Follow these steps:

  • Make a fresh working copy of your manuscript (so you don’t lose what you’ve got right now).
  • Read through your manuscript and mark every piece of backstory. You can do this easily in Word by
  • highlighting it and then inserting a comment that says, “Backstory.”
  • Now go through your story and interrogate every single piece of backstory to figure out if it’s both necessary and minimal. If it isn’t, snip it out and save it to a different file — a “backstory file.”
  • Read through your story one more time looking for places that are confusing because of missing backstory.

Clear up the confusion by inserting the minimal necessary backstory. You can either write it fresh or copy in a piece from your backstory file. You can use any of the six techniques we discussed above. Choose the one that meets your strategic goals for the story best.

When you finish, you’ll have a leaner, more robust story in which every single piece of backstory is just what your reader needs in order to enjoy the frontstory.

Reprinted with permission © 2011 Randy Ingermanson. All rights reserved.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 26,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

10 thoughts on “Making Your Reader Love Backstory”

  1. Hmmm, I do see the sense in what has been said here but I can think of many a tale that starts with a huge “backstory” and went onto be million sellers. Worse, thinking of Ghormenghast and Glorianna, Both give a, many pages, long description of a Castle at the beginning before leaping into long back stories. Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock respectively who both won many awards and had million sellers. Thomas Hardy always starts with a lengthy backstory as does Jane Austen. As I was thinking on this question I wondered if Perhaps the writer was American as all the examples I had thought of were British. Perhaps we British like to read a backstory whilst our friends across the pond abhor it.. Then I thought of Dan Simmons, always a large back-story and Henry James, and (I shall stop spouting names) I realised that American’s often liked a backstory as well. Perhaps then it is the Scandinavians, or the Chinese or Indians and I thought of the Icelandic sagas and “The Art of War” and the books of Salman Rushdie and thought, but all contain large and impressive back stories that give them weight and heft. I do not think that you want to leave such things out.. Moorcock, Simmons, Peake and James, Austen and Hardy have only been selling books, by the boatload, for decades but the others I mentioned have been selling for over a thousand years.

  2. Really enjoyed all the good information on backstory. Wish I had it when I wrote my first book. Fortunately I didn’t overdo it but I probably could have done better.

    1. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Jeanette. When you are writing from the heart and it works well, then try not to second guess yourself. Modern readers are smart:)

  3. Ray, I totally agree! Numerous classics had hefty back stories (I especially love Jane Austin’s backstories because they seemed to be filled with humor:-)) But I have noticed that the more modern novels (even as early as Harold Robbins and Ian Fleming) usually dribbled backstory into the story. On the other hand, Helen McInnis dumped pages and pages of backstory in her books and they were so boring to me. The movies of her books were much better.
    But Henry James made his backstory interesting! I think that is the point that Randy was trying to make. Yes, he is American, and a teacher, and an author.
    What we authors have to deal with these days is the very short attention span of the GenXers and the Millennials. My sister (teacher of music for 30+ years) says that we get bored with songs that last longer than 3 minutes because we’ve been programmed by the radio for songs to be that short. I think reading has been programmed by the Internet information highway for grabbing info in quick spurts rather than savoring a nice long story. Even publishers have taken to publishing shorter novels of 200-300 pages rather than those epic sagas of 500 -700 pages. Sigh.

    1. Gina, Hi and thanks for the response. I take your point yet I am even now thinking of what I read last night, a grand fantasy, a trilogy, each book, six or eight hundred pages long. I am growing old and so I accepted your point without question. I am not “down wit’ di yout’ of today” and know not their thoughts and ideas, but strangely I was speaking to my son last night on the (wired) telephone .
      My son and I talked and he is reading the “Dark Tower series” by Stephen King, Next to, Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” possible the longest book series ever written.
      I think that the publishing companies have not yet began to understand the new world. Change takes time but it always happens. Remember when we all gave up vinyl and realized that we were mistaken?

      1. Oh my goodness, yes! I prefer the older books, I prefer the older movie classics, I was born in a different century and I cling to the older ways of doing things. Ah well, thank goodness there are millions of authors who write in millions of different ways 🙂

  4. Barbara, I know! I’m have trouble with this back story thing while writing a sequel to my book Weep Not for the Dead. Trying to write a sequel to a book where characters are already developed, so what do you put in the story that will help those who didn’t read the first one but not bore those readers who did read the first one? Trying to make them stand alones is driving me crazy! LOL

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