I’m continuing to write about backstory because it continues to be a topic that confounds writers — and not just any old topic, but a seminal topic. Because backstory is the heart of your novel, without it you will just have a bunch of surface things that happen. In fact, you not only need to create your protagonist’s story-specific backstory before you shove her onto page one, that very backstory will be on the first page. I’m betting you don’t believe me, which is why this month’s entry is all about how backstory is very often right there in the first few pages of your novel, and how it often goes on for pages.
And here’s the shocking thing, given the way writers are often told to think of backstory (that it slows the novel down; or worse, stops it altogether): backstory is actually what holds the story together. It’s the spark that gives it juice. It’s what pulls you in and makes you care. It’s the layer we’re hardwired to respond to; it’s what gives meaning to everything that is happening up there on the surface.
Wait, you might be thinking. Am I hearing you correctly? Because it sure as heck sounds like you’re talking about an Info Dump. We touched on this a couple of months ago, but right now I want to shine a bright light on it. This might make you feel kind of squeamish. I mean, an “Info Dump” sounds like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Definitely not like something you talk about in polite society.
Ah, but we must. Because the problem is that we’ve conflated Info Dumps with what is being “dumped.” That is: backstory. Writers are taught to shun backstory for fear it will “slow their story down” or worse, derail it entirely. And hey, since the last thing you want is to inadvertently leave “droppings” of backstory throughout your novel, why even spend much time developing it? Arrghh! That’s like putting on an ill-fitting, poorly constructed pair of pants, looking in the mirror and thinking, “Boy that looks awful, I’m NEVER wearing pants again!” It’s not pants that are the problem; it’s the way THOSE pants were made (and if you’re anything like me, spending a bit more time at the gym wouldn’t hurt either).
The point is, when it comes to Info Dumps, backstory is not the problem. It’s how the backstory is injected into the narrative that matters. When it’s unceremoniously dumped, it does stop the story cold. And yes, absolutely, no one should do that. Ever. But when backstory is artfully layered in? It’s what makes the story compelling, propelling it forward, giving it power. The takeaway on backstory is this: don’t give us backstory inartfully.
So, let’s focus on two things here:
- What constitutes large inartful pieces of backstory – aka the dreaded Info Dump.
- What the same type of information looks like when artfully woven in.
To make the point, I’m going to use excerpts from very successful novels to show the artful part, so you can see for yourself how large pieces of backstory are very often offered up in the first five pages (not to mention all the way through the story). Yes, these bestselling novels deftly employ the very thing that you’ve very likely been told to avoid like the plague – lots of backstory right out of the starting gate.
What might surprise you – as it did me when I focused on it – is that you’re always reading big chunks of backstory early on in a novel and you never even notice it. You don’t think, Hmmm, there’s a big chunk of “backstory.” Nor does it seem like an “Info Dump” or does it slow things down one iota. In fact, you don’t notice it as anything other than part of a very compelling story that has you hooked.
- So what, then, constitutes an “Info Dump”?
An Info Dump announces itself thusly: it purposefully stops the narrative cold (think one of those sports guys making that “T” thing with his hands, motioning for a time out), then the author steps in, and Tells Us Something S/he Thinks we Need To Know in Order for What’s Happening to Make Sense. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, the writer stops the story to tell us something we might need to know later, but s/he isn’t sure so s/he might as well tell us now. Another variation of this occurs when the writer employs a character to deliver the same information — information that, almost always, all the other characters are already full well aware of, but the reader isn’t. Like: Joe hears a knock and opens the door to find his neighbor Barney standing there, who says “Hi Joe, how ya doin? I was just thinking about your ex-wife, Thea – you know, who you were married to about twenty years ago, before you and Wendy hooked up? Anyway, remember how Thea disappeared for two weeks without a trace, back when she was working for the CIA and when she finally turned up she looked so damned different? Ah well, people change, I guess. Never could figure out how she got to be a foot taller though. Well, so much for strolling down memory lane, can I borrow a cup of sugar?”
As you can imagine, such inartful giving of info – backstory or otherwise – stands out like a sore thumb. You notice it big time, and not in a good way.
A large part of the problem is that the author is giving us backstory point blank — that is, supplying us with “objective” facts, separate from the story we’re following, and it’s our job to then figure out what they mean and why they matter. Instead, backstory is subjective, it’s what your protagonist (and/or other POV characters) uses to make sense of what’s happening, and how they should handle it. Which is precisely why we, as readers, don’t tend see it as backstory — that is, the kind of story-stopping backstory we’ve been warned about. Because it doesn’t stop the story. Turns out it’s not separate from the story at all, it’s woven in as an integral part of it.
- The Secret of Backstory – Now You See It, Now You Don’t
Here’s the irony: When backstory is woven in well, you don’t notice it at all – as backstory that is. That’s why it’s easy to believe the writing world when it advises you to stay the hell away from backstory, especially in the beginning.
I don’t want you to take my word for it. Instead, let’s take a look at those four novels – all of them bestsellers. One was also a successful movie; one was written by a woman who went on to win the Pulitzer; one was a stunning debut novel; and one was dubbed one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal. In other words, these writers are no slouches. To make the point, I’ve pulled out excerpts, all from the first few pages, so you can see with your own eyes what you often miss when you’re enthralled by a story: that what has you enthralled is backstory.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This New York Times bestseller begins with the lines: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet.” Lydia is the 16-year-old favored child of a family of five; “they” are her family. The opening scene plays out in the family kitchen on a weekday morning. When Lydia doesn’t come down for breakfast they realize she is nowhere to be found. They’re concerned, but not overly worried. Yet. Lydia’s two siblings and father then leave for the day and on on page 4 we get Lydia’s mother Marilyn’s train of thought as she considers her relationship with her beloved middle child:
When the children have gone, she takes a mug from the cupboard, trying to keep her hands still. Long ago, when Lydia was a baby, Marilyn had once left her in the living room, playing on a quilt, and went into the kitchen for a cup of tea. She had been only eleven months old. Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway. She had startled and set her hand down on the hot burner. A red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she were taking in the kitchen for the first time. Marilyn didn’t think about missing those first steps, or how grown up her daughter had become. The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding? …”
This flashback doesn’t stop here, it goes on for another half page. The point – the reason for the backstory – is reflected in the conclusion Marilyn then draws, as hinted at in the last couple of sentences above. It’s this: even when Lydia was very small, Marilyn felt that she was keeping secrets, that there were parts of her that Marilyn couldn’t see. The heart of the novel is right there in the backstory – and this novel is full of backstory — because that’s where the key to decode the present always lies. The continual layer of backstory that is intricately woven into the novel is where the answer to “What happened to Lydia, why and what does it mean to her family?” comes from. Without that while what happens would be a tragedy, it wouldn’t be involving – because it would just be a fact: Lydia died. And so? What’s the point? The point is that what gives meaning to these events isn’t simply that they happened, it’s how they affect her family, based on how each member – subjectively – interprets, experiences and deals with the tragedy. That is what readers are tracking, from the first page to the last.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This is Pulitzer Prize winner Tartt’s bestselling debut novel. It centers on the experience of the narrator, Richard Papen, when he was nineteen, and a student at the fictional Hampden College. It chronicles a year, a murder, and the intertwined lives of Richard and five friends, all classics students, at a small elite college in Vermont (most likely a stand in for Bennington, Tartt’s alma mater). In the third paragraph on page 1, Richard says he’d never seen New England or Hampden College until he was nineteen. Mind you, the novel is about the year he spent at Hampden. And yet, beginning with the fourth paragraph of Page 1, Richard tells us . . .
I grew up in Plano. A small silicon village in the north. No sisters, no brothers. My father ran a gas station and my mother stayed home until I got older and times got tighter and she went to work, answering phones in the office of one of the big chip factories outside San Jose.
Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup. Which I suppose was a very great gift, in one way. On leaving home I was able to fabricate a new and far more satisfying history, full of striking, simplistic environmental influences; a colorful past, easily accessible to strangers.
The dazzle of this fictive childhood — full of swimming pools and orange groves and dissolute, charming show-biz parents — has all but eclipsed the drab original. In fact, when I think about my real childhood I am unable to recall much about it at all except a sad jumble of objects: the sneakers I wore year-round; coloring books and comics from the supermarket; little of interest, less of beauty. I was quiet, tall for my age; prone to freckles. I didn’t have many friends but whether this was due to choice or circumstance I do not know. I did well in school, it seems, but not exceptionally well; I liked to read — Tom Swift, the Tolkien books — but also watch television, which I did plenty of, lying on the carpet of our empty living room in the long dull afternoons after school.
I’ll stop there, but Tartt goes on for another five full pages of backstory before Richard returns to the present day subject at hand: His experiences at Hampden College.
As with Ng’s novel, notice how Richard draws conclusions about his time spent in Plano that play forward? For instance: it was expendable, allowing him to invent a very different history for himself.
The remaining five pages of backstory are chock full of the same — relevant, story-specific info. Every single thing Richard tells us about his past informs who he is, what he wants, how he sees the world and why he chose this college – in other words it’s story-specific, not merely a general summation of his general past. Along the way he continually draws conclusions so that we understand not just what happened to him but, far more importantly, what it taught him that will play forward throughout the story. It’s this inside intel that draws into — and illuminates — Richard’s tale.
About a Boy, by Nick Hornby
The following snippet is from Hornby’s bestselling novel, which was made into a successful movie starring Hugh Grant back in his endearingly boyish halcyon days. The novel has duel protagonists – Will, a rather immature man of 36 (type casting or what?), and the far more adult Marcus, who is twelve. In this scene – on page 3 — Marcus’s mom, Fiona, has just asked him whether it bothers him that she has boyfriends. He told her that he doesn’t mind. To which she says:
“You’ve been really good about everything. Considering you’ve had two different sorts of life.”
He understood what she meant. The first sort of life had ended four years ago when he was eight, and his mum and dad had split up; that was the normal, boring kind, with school and holidays and homework and weekend visits to grandparents. The second sort was messier, and there were more people and places in it: his mother’s boyfriends and his dad’s girlfriends; flats and houses; Cambridge and London. You wouldn’t believe that so much could change just because a relationship ended, but he wasn’t bothered. Sometimes he even thought he preferred the second sort of life to the first. More happened, and that had to be a good thing.
This is, in fact, a perfect example of how to incorporate backstory. Fiona says something to Marcus that makes him think about his past – and, having reflected on it, he then draws a conclusion that plays forward: “More happened, and that had to be a good thing.” It’s clearly something he’s not quite sure of (you can almost hear a question mark at the end). It is, in fact, something he’s going to spend the novel finding out – and that is why we, as readers, care.
The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh
Here is an example from Writer Unboxed’s very own Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief, Therese Walsh. This is from her second novel, which racked up starred reviews from Library Journal, Booklist and others. This scene is from the second and third pages of the book. As the novel opens, Olivia is saying goodbye to her mother, who’s working on a manuscript that she’d been writing for nearly Olivia’s entire life, but has yet to finish. Olivia, realizing her mother seems to be having a rough moment, offers to stay home with her . . .
“I’ll stay home with you today. If you’re up for it, we can dream together for a while. We haven’t done that in a long time.”
When I was younger, we called it “the dream game.” Sometimes I’d describe life through my eyes – like the way thunder filled the air with mustard-gold fog—because she enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes we’d both poke our heads through the clouds, especially after math, when we were both worn out from too much thinking. She’d lie on the couch with her eyes locked shut, and I’d fling myself over a chair with my eyes wide open, and we’d unloose our wildest imaginings. Trees rained soft white buds the size of platters onto our shoulders and into our hair, covered us until we looked like exotic birds. We’d fly to Iceland or France or Russia or Brazil. Visit creamy blue pools and limestone cliffs and waterfalls that went on for miles.
Sometimes we’d visit the bog and see the ghost lights, which Mama said were like a vision of hope itself, and she’d have a revelation about the end of her story.
But it was all just dreaming.
That last line is the conclusion she’s drawn – it was all just dreaming, because sheesh, a lot of time has passed and her mother hasn’t yet finished her story. It’s also a premonition that sets the tone for the entire novel. Because two pages later, Olivia is going to return home to find her mother dead, the story still unfinished. She will then try to fill in the ending herself – which is what we will track.
I have a towering pile of books on my desk and I could keep going with example after example. Next would have been something from the first couple of pages of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and after that, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Not little snippets, but paragraphs, pages, entire chapters of backstory.
The point is blindingly clear: Backstory is everywhere, in large explicit passages as we’ve seen, and implicitly in every action the protagonist takes. But the only way you can begin to incorporate backstory into your novel from the first page onward is to, um, create it first. With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with two pieces of advice:
First don’t be afraid of lacing backstory into your novel, from the first page to the last. Do it right and it’s what will pull your reader in.
Second, that means you need to know the backstory before you begin writing your novel. Because backstory is not only where the meaning of the events (not to mention the events themselves) comes from, but it is what drives your protagonist to take those actions in the first place. Because in literature as in life, our subjective past is the decoder ring we humans use to interpret the present, and to imagine the future.
After all, our past is the one thing we never do leave home without!