Alas, poor backstory. Whenever its name is mentioned, it is usually in hushed tones during a first-page takedown in a critique group, or on a panel of editors warning anxious wannabes about the sins of the plodders. Using backstory in the opening pages is one of those sins, they say, and warn that using it thus will render your ceremonially unclean.
Why the disapprobation? Because it’s been mishandled too many times. Loads of exposition larded into a chapter can turn reading into a slog. But does that mean it should be chucked completely?
Backstory, when artfully laced into the opening pages, actually works as a bonding agent. Which, I would argue, is the primary task of the opening: get us emotionally connected to a character facing a disturbance to their world.
Backstory, of course, is a term coined by the old Hollywood screenwriters, referring to any story material and character history that happens before the story begins. Like the Paris stuff in Casablanca. That reveal comes in the middle of the film, via flashback. However, the effects of it are clearly seen in the present. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) plays chess alone. He sticks his neck out for nobody. He won’t tell anyone why he came to Casablanca. When he hears his piano man, Sam, playing “As Time Goes By” he goes ballistic.
And in an early scene, where Rick is being questioned by the Nazi major, Strasser, he’s asked if he can imagine the Germans in his beloved Paris.
“It’s not particularly my beloved Paris,” Rick says. Why? We don’t know. It’s a mystery. And mystery makes us want to keep watching.
All you need is a line or two like that. John D. MacDonald’s classic of 1950s domestic turmoil, Cancel All Our Vows, is the story of Fletcher and Jane Wyant, married for fifteen years and climbing the social ladder.
Into their world comes the young wife of Fletcher’s co-worker. Laura Corban is young, sensual, a little dangerous. And bored with her husband.
All the makings of a femme fatale, eh? But MacDonald is too good a writer to paint Laura with a stereotypical brush. At home after a country club event where she got tipsy and a little too close to Fletcher, she rips off her dress:
And she felt, once again, the familiar desire to punish the truant body. She snatched up the heap of clothing and hurried up the stairs. She threw the clothing on the bed and hurried to the bathroom and turned the hot water on full.
A familiar desire? To punish her truant body? Why? We want to find out. And we will … but not yet.
Another way to weave in backstory information is through dialogue. In Act 1 of Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault has a friendly argument with Rick over whether Victor Laszlo will escape Casablanca.
Rick: Louis, whatever gave you the impression that I might be interested in helping Laszlo escape?
Louis: Because, my dear Ricky, I suspect that under that cynical shell you’re at heart a sentimentalist. Oh, laugh if you will, but I happen to be familiar with your record. Let me point out just two items. In 1935 you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain on the Loyalist side.
Rick: And got well paid for it on both occasions.
Louis: The winning side would have paid you much better.
Ah, here we have the first indication that Rick once fought for a cause he believed in. It will help us understand his later actions, such as allowing the orchestra to play “La Marseillaise” to overpower some Nazis singing a German anthem.
The key to using dialogue in this fashion is to put the information into a tense exchange. Otherwise you could end up with clunky expository dialogue along the lines of, “Hello, Bruce, my family doctor. Come in. I want to hear all about that botched operation back in your previous city of residence, Baltimore.”
Finally, don’t be hesitant about using explicit backstory in your narration. Here the key is to keep it relevant, brief and interspersed with action.
Dean Koontz does this all the time. In Midnight, for example, the opening chapter concerns a woman named Janice Capshaw, who is out for a run at night. Koontz gives us the action and some description, then this paragraph:
Even as a child, she had preferred night to day, had enjoyed sitting out in the yard after sunset, under the star-speckled sky, listening to frogs and crickets. Darkness soothed. It softened the sharp edges of the world, toned down the too-harsh colors. With the coming of twilight, the sky seemed to recede; the universe expanded. The night was bigger than the day, and in its realm, life seemed to have more possibilities.
This dollop of backstory tells us Janice is a sensitive sort, preferring the softness of the night. It’s a small but significant look back, and incrementally increases our sympathy for her (and we’re probably thinking, Don’t you know you’re running at night at the beginning of a Dean Koontz novel? Run home now!)
Two more paragraphs of action and description follow. Then this:
Richard—her late husband, who had succumbed to cancer three years ago—had said that her circadian rhythms were so post-midnight focused that she was more than just a night person. “You’d probably love being a vampire, living between sunset and dawn,” he’d said, and she’d said, “I vant to suck your blood.” God, she had loved him. Initially she worried that the life of a Lutheran minister’s wife would be boring, but it never was, not for a moment. Three years after his death, she still missed him every day—and even more at night.
She’s a widow. She loved her husband dearly. She has a sense of humor. Why is Koontz bothering with all this? To increase the emotional impact on us when Janice Capshaw meets her Koontzian end at the close of the chapter.
He has bonded us to a character. The character gets, um, eaten. And disappears from the story (though her sister shows up as a main character). Koontz could have described the opening action without any backstory at all, but would it have been as effective? I think not.
In my workshops I counsel students who are nervous about backstory to allow themselves three sentences of it in the first five pages, spread out or used all at once. And three paragraphs in the next five pages, spread out or all at once. Just to see how it feels.
For those adding backstory, it almost always it turns out that we better empathize with the viewpoint character. And for those cutting backstory to these dimensions, the pace picks up.
Win-win, as they say.
Now, I must add that many a good novel has begun with great chunks of backstory. To Kill A Mockingbird and Gone Girl come to mind. Let it be noted that both of these examples are in first person point of view by incredibly good writers exhibiting a compelling voice.
Far be it from me to edit Harper Lee or Gillian Flynn.
But I will say this. Given the choice between starting with a dollop or a dump of backstory, make your default the former. You can never go wrong by leading with action and using backstory as a bonding agent.
That’s what makes readers stick around.