Even good backstory can kill a story if it’s not delivered well. We’ve looked extensively at how to weave in backstory, but I think in this “201-level” look, we can go beyond the basic mechanics on a scene level (which we’ve covered before) and look at how backstory revelations should function in a story—and how to keep their delivery smooth.
As we said last time, this has to be the right kind of backstory—something worth waiting for. Hinting at the backstory, “insinuating” it as Chris Roerden puts it (Don’t Murder Your Mystery), can be a driving force for the novel if the “right” backstory is big enough (such as the identity of the murderer).
Hinting at the backstory throughout the story creates suspense by promising some big, important revelation. We’re writing the reader a promissory note, and if the revelation isn’t as big and important as we set it up to be, we can’t give our readers the pay off we promised.
But as long as our backstory is a big enough deal, suspense is often the main function of backstory. When you keep in mind that you’re trying to raise more questions than you answer (but answer enough questions not to frustrate your reader!), it might be easier to see why (and how) to slip backstory in a “shard” at a time.
One important thing to remember is that there has to be some “action” in the present to balance the action set in the past. Not fight scenes per se, but some character doing something. If the plot is going to revolve around searching for some truth or story or facts, that search has to be compelling in and of itself. An entire book about a girl sitting down to read her late father’s journal—which she does, successfully, in one sitting, and she counts herself lucky to have known him—isn’t as compelling or interesting as just depicting the backstory (the father’s life) as the “live action” of the story.
There has to be conflict in the present as well as in the backstory we’re revealing—and possibly between the two, as well. Maybe the daughter is going through troubles in her marriage and she reads about her father’s doubts in his marriage. But before she can come to his final choice whether to remain faithful to her mother, the daughter’s husband interrupts her. They have a fight. He takes the journal and burns it. The daughter must set off to find the “other woman” to see what her father chose. She only knows her first name, and so on. Discovering the story isn’t easy—and the character has a compelling reason to want to know the (very important) truth.
And of course, that revelatory truth will most likely come at or around the climax of the story—another reason why this has to be a big promise, and something worth revealing.
What do you think? When a story centers around backstory, how does the delivery differ than in other stories?
Photo by Michael Lehet