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Raise a Question, Earn the Backstory

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

As avid readers, writers have an intuitive sense of when to include backstory. Their efforts, however, can come across as either boring (in the case of info dump), laughable (in the case of random irrelevance), or disruptive (in the case of backstory delivered too soon).

Clearly, these reactions are not ideal. What’s going wrong?

In each case just mentioned, the backstory inclusion is driven by the author’s goal to deliver information and not, as it should be in every scene, driven by the demands of the protagonist’s story.

The purpose of backstory is to motivate your characters for the actions they take in the current story. Unless something from the past had a powerful influence on the way the characters are acting now, you’ll be hard-pressed to defend the relevance of its inclusion. In fact, you may not have the chance to try—you may already have lost your reader.

Accept these cold, hard facts about backstory

  1. The reader approaches your novel with an interest in your character’s history that is idle to nil. During your opening, the reader’s primary goal is to orient to the frame of the story you want to tell, and will simply accept what you tell her on page one as being the current state of things. It is up to you to generate interest in the protagonist’s history.
  2. “Because I wrote it and it’s interesting” is not a standard of relevant inclusion. You might want to include your character’s entire personal history because you took the time to write it, but you were doing so to start to get a sense of your character. In your novel, that character will pop to life through only those backstory inclusions that will motivate the story you want to tell.
  3. Every time you switch to a backstory scene you stand the chance of jarring readers from the fictive dream, which will invite them to set down your book. It’s up to you to ease the transition.

One mad skill will address all three of these issues, and I’m shocked that more writers don’t use it.

Raise a question about backstory

You can keep readers with you by raising a question to which they would like an answer. Even if they are heavily involved in your current plot—which we hope they are—they will tolerate the departure from it to learn the answer.

Mark L. Danielewski used this technique to set up a frame story in his cult hit, House of Leaves. In other words, his entire story is backstory, and he hopes to involve us in it by raising powerful questions that will help carry us through an opening that’s a bit of a slog. This is from the fifth page of the fictional “introduction,” although it’s the first mention of the point-of-view character’s current situation:

I haven’t even washed the blood off yet. Not all of it’s mine either. Still caked around my fingers. Signs of it on my shirt. “What’s happened here?” I keep asking myself. “What have I done?” What would you have done? I went straight for the guns and I loaded them and then I tried to decide what to do with them. The obvious thing was to shoot something. After all, that’s what guns are designed to do—shoot something. But who? Or what? I didn’t have a clue. There were people and cars outside my hotel window. Midnight people I didn’t know. Midnight cars I’d never seen before. I could have shot them all.

I threw up in my closet instead.

Clearly, something deeply disturbing has happened to this character, and in order to beg our curiosity, Danielewski has resisted telling us exactly what. I read on for the answers. You can use this technique at the end of any section to generate interest in a backstory scene to come.

But you don’t need blood to do the trick. Raising a question can be as easy as adding one line of transition, such as in these three examples:

Susie dabbed the makeup onto her bruised cheek. Sam hadn’t always been this way.

Of course Janet knew all about the guns.

Preachers couldn’t be trusted. Jack had known that since he was ten years old.

This technique takes a little thought but isn’t all that hard. Yet I thumbed through some thirty novels I had on hand before coming up with Danielewski’s example. Give it a try. If your backstory teaser leads to a scene that helps the reader understand why your character is in such a tough spot, it will effectively maintain the psychological tension you’ve built and draw her in all the more.

Have you ever set a book down because you just didn’t want to navigate the clunky transition to backstory you didn’t care about? Have you used this technique in your writing, or noted great examples in published works? Share a line or two that comes right before the breakaway to backstory.

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.