I’ve been thinking about this as I revise the opening chapters of my WIP: I kind of hate backstory. Well, that’s not strictly true. It would be more accurate to say I have a love/hate relationship with it. I LOVE imagining backstories for all my characters, scribbling notes to myself about their childhoods, families, most embarrassing moment in high school, favorite food, first crush–I could (and do) go on for pages for every one of my characters. What I struggle with is figuring out a) how to work that backstory in without pulling focus away from my story, which after all is unfolding in the now of the book world, not the past. And b) just how much of the backstory to put in. Because backstory is just that–in the backseat to your book’s story. Which means you just can’t include it all.
Last week, Evan Marshal and Martha Jewett said that one of the common ‘fatal flaws’ they see in manuscript submissions is ‘Loading the beginning of a novel with background and/or explanations, rather than hitting the ground running with action.’ To me, that’s a tricky balance. You want your opening to be action-packed, interesting and exciting enough to pull the reader in. But action without heart is (to me) kind of soulless. As a reader, I want an opening page and/or chapter that not only pulls me quickly into a story, but also makes me fall in love with the lead characters. And for that, I think you really do need at least a touch of backstory. It’s hard to understand who any character is, now, unless you have at least a glimpse of what’s shaped them into the person they are when we meet them on page one. Anyway, I can’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a couple of techniques that have helped me and that I’m trying to keep in mind as I work through revisions:
1. Drip feed, don’t info-dump. Instead of filling the first chapter with everything I know about my main character, I try to be selective. More information can always be introduced later, as the story unfolds–and holding back actually increases narrative tension, keeping the reader interested in finding out more. But for the opening, I ask myself what are the absolute more important things that the reader needs to know about my character in order to set up the emotional arc of the book? And by that I mean, where has this character been that’s going to inform where they’re going to go in the course of my novel? In the first chapter, I try to make sure any backstory I include is like a very specific snapshot–like the ‘before’ picture in one of those diet pills commercials. This is where my character has been to bring her to this moment at the start of my story now.
2. Show, don’t tell. We get told this all the time as novelists, but I think it’s even more important when you’re writing backstory. Keep backstory as detailed, vivid, and brief as possible. In Jennifer Weiner’s Little Earthquakes (which I’m choosing because it happens to be on my nightstand at the moment, but also because she’s a master of backstory) one of her three main characters, Becky, has always struggled with her weight. But Weiner doesn’t say “Becky had always struggled with her weight” or “Becky got teased a lot growing up.” Instead she has Becky thinking about “her mean Aunt Joan, who’d showed up at her tenth birthday party and pulled her aside before the cake and presents to hiss that she didn’t need such a big slice of cake and wouldn’t she like an apple instead.” That’s only a single sentence, but it gives us a really very vivid, visceral picture of Becky’s childhood, which has shaped her into the woman she is today.
3. It’s okay to know more than the reader. Characters are kind of like the part of the iceberg visible above the water: only 20% of the actual mass of the iceberg, true. But it wouldn’t be visible if not for the 80% below. In the same way, 80% of my character notes will probably never make it into the actual novel. But that’s okay. They’ve served they’re purpose, which is to help me get to know my characters enough to know who they are as they move through my story. And if an unexpected opportunity crops up to present something from the backstory as a memory–then I have it, ready and waiting, to make my characters’ past come alive.
What about you? How do you feel about backstory? Do you feel differently about is as a reader vs. as a writer?
Image by silenthero.