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What We’ve Been Taught About Backstory . . . and Why It’s Wrong

photo by R/DV/RS via Flickr
photo by R/DV/RS via Flickr

Let’s talk about backstory. Last month in my post [1] I wrote a lot about it, and when reading through the always insightful comments, it struck me that there is a bit of legitimate confusion, along with some deeply ingrained misconceptions, about backstory: what it is, its role when creating a novel, and its place within the novel itself. So I thought it was high time to redefine the term.

The above paragraph? That is backstory.

Backstory is the fundamental “why” that drives what a person does, what they say – and, even more revealing, backstory defines what they actually mean when they say it.

I’m not just talking about writers and writing. I’m talking about life. We humans make every decision based on our own subjective backstory, aka our past experience. Our brain is wired to instantly rip through our mental Rolodex (remember those?) in order to figure out the one thing we’re all striving for every minute of every day: what to do in order to survive. Every action we ever take is driven by what our backstory assures us is the right thing to do. We never stop acting based on backstory. We can’t. And so our past is continually woven into our present, ever defining it.

But what our personal backstory tells us to do to survive is not always right. I’m betting none of us has to think too hard to remember something that felt soooo right at the time, only to discover that it was anything but. That’s where story comes in. The goal of a story is to challenge a belief that your protagonist’s past has taught her is true, when in fact, it isn’t.

For writers out here in the real world, one of those misbeliefs is what we’ve been taught about backstory.

Writers have long been warned that backstory is a dirty word. In some quarters backstory is taken as synonymous with “info dump,” and therefore something to avoid at all costs. It even sounds yucky.

For instance, a few years ago I had an otherwise promising student who never gave us any backstory whatsoever, nor did his protagonist Beverly ever reflect on anything that happened to her before Page 1. As a result we never had so much as a smidge of insight into why she did, well, anything.

When I asked him about it, he told me he did it on purpose. Because a prior writing instructor had told him in no uncertain terms that one of the first rules of writing is never, ever use flashbacks.

Advice, I suspected, spurred by frustration. I told him I was pretty sure the instructor had simply read one too many stories in which the narrative stops cold for no apparent reason so the writer can step forward and tell the reader something really important that, if we’re lucky, we’ll need to know later. What’s worse, those flashbacks were probably full of pure exposition that rambled on page after page. Yep, info dumps. Yuck.

I told him that what the instructor probably meant was, never use a flashback poorly. And since that’s what most aspiring writers do, she probably figured she had her bases covered. Because clumsily done, flashbacks can completely derail a story. (I later bumped into said instructor, who confirmed that that was exactly what she meant: never use flashbacks poorly.)

This is precisely my point: writers have tacitly been taught to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, it’s absolutely true that you don’t want to stop your story to give us an info dump. But that doesn’t mean the info you would have dumped isn’t utterly necessary. It is. What’s more, it plays an indispensable role in your story.

It’s just that it’s not the author’s place to give us that info cold. Nor is it the protagonist’s place to stop and “tell” us about his or her past, either.

Instead the protagonist’s backstory must be layered into the current action. Rather than learning about it “objectively,” readers want to experience it through the affect it has on the protagonist now, in the moment.

Here’s the secret: Backstory becomes present – and therefore active – when it’s influencing what your protagonist is doing, thinking, considering. That is the wavelength your reader is wired to respond to, because that’s where your protagonist’s motive lives. We don’t simply want to know what your protagonist does, we want to know why.

The nifty thing about our very human desire to know why is that it tells you when to use a flashback: when your protagonist or POV character is trying to make a decision, figure something out, or make sense of something in the moment.

Let me give you an example. This is a scene from page three of A.S.A. Hinton’s psychological thriller The Silent Wife. On page two she let us know that the protagonist, Jodi, will within a few weeks become a killer (her husband Todd clearly being the intended victim):

Trimming the vegetables and chopping herbs, she throws herself bodily into the work. She likes the intensity of cooking—the readiness of the gas flame, the timer marking off the minutes, the immediacy of the result. She’s aware of the silence beyond the kitchen, everything rushing to the point in time when she’ll hear his key in the lock, an event she anticipates with pleasure. She can still feel that making dinner for Todd is an occasion, can still marvel at the stroke of fate that brought him into her life, a matter of rank chance that did not seem to favor an acquaintance, much less a future of appetizing meals, lovingly prepared.

Not only is there a bit of backstory in that paragraph, but from there Hinton launches into a full three page flashback of how they met. NOT simply to tell the reader about it, but to show us how deluded Jodi is about the state of her marriage to Todd at the moment before it begins to come crashing down.

It’s not the “objective” content of the flashback that makes this point, it’s the fact that Jodi would be thinking about it now that packs a revealing wallop in light of what we know is coming.

And even more important, backstory is constantly brought into play as Jodi tries to make sense of what’s going on with Todd, and what she should do about it. As in most novels, backstory is the counterbalance to the present – the ever-present lens through which the protagonist sees the world. In a sense, a story is about the battle between the past and the present within the protagonist’s heart and mind.

In this way current action and backstory are always woven together, each one spurring the other. The goal is to find the balance between them. Either one all by itself – that is, long stretches of nothing but action, or long stretches of nothing but interior thought – are almost always deadly.

And speaking of deadly, that brings us to the big problem that the “avoid backstory” rule causes for the writer: Telling the writer to avoid backstory or flashbacks implies that if you don’t have to communicate it to the reader, then you don’t need to know it either.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s why understanding the importance of backstory is a game changer — not just for your reader, but for you.

At its most basic, a story is about how someone grapples with a problem they can’t avoid, and how they change in the process. But, um, you can’t write about how someone changes unless you know, specifically, what they’re changing from. Nor can you write about a problem unless you know, specifically, what caused it. And as real life has taught us all too well, by the time we’re forced to face a thorny problem, chances are it’s been building for quite some time — years, decades, often our whole life up to that moment. This is clearly something that Hinton knew when she wrote The Silent Wife, and is why the novel was able to open “in medias res” – in the middle of the thing – as all effective novels do.

The question for all novelists is: in the middle of what? What starts on page one is the second half of the story, when the plot kicks in. Developing relevant backstory is, in fact, how you get to the first page, because the story you’re writing began long before.

This is why it’s so heartbreaking that the first half of the story has been overlooked, dismissed and subtly looked down upon as . . . backstory.

Let’s take a look at how backstory is what gives the plot meaning, very often beginning – yep – on the very first page. For instance:

F. Scott Fitzgerald not only opens The Great Gatsby with backstory, but backstory that defines the entire novel:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence . . .

 So, too, does Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner:

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it, because the past claws its way out. Looking back, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

How perfectly said is that? Hosseini is making our point for us: You can’t bury the past, because the past claws its way out.

In life that’s an unalterable fact. In a novel, it’s only possible provided the writer has created that past in the first place.

The art, of course, is in finding the right balance between past and present, so that every action spurs internal conflict based on the protagonist’s past experience.

So, how can we define backstory? How about this:

Backstory is the first half of the story you’re telling. It’s knowledge your protagonist walks onto page one already in full possession of; it guides her action from the second she appears. In other words: backstory is the concrete yardstick your protagonist uses to measure the meaning of everything that happens.

And what about backstory out here in real life? We’re coming up to the one day a year when we officially decide to shed a few of the, shall we say, less productive habits our backstory has instilled in us. Or, at least, make a nice long list of them. Yes, I’m talking about New Years Resolutions. How about you, what in your writing life are you hoping to change as you prepare to step onto the first day of a new year?

About Lisa Cron [2]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [3] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [4] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [5]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [6] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [7]