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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.