Monday 2 April 2012

Backstory Delayed Gratification

Every story needs some background information. You can’t write down every important thing that happens to a character as it happens. Some of it has to be an event in the past recalled in the present. Backstory is a necessity.

It's possible to have a backstory that is so fascinating you can start the story with a birth certificate and a list of schools attended, and every date and childhood trauma is of vital importance. But most backstories are not that captivating.

How would you feel if a stranger walked up to you and forced you to listen to the parts of their life they consider very interesting? Insisting, once you know me, you’ll really like me. A bit pushy? Annoying? 

How would the stranger feel if you went up to them and insisted they tell you all about themselves? Claiming you saw them across the room and just had to come over and find out everything there is to know. Freaked out? Eyeing the exit?

Telling a reader what happened in a character’s childhood isn’t how you get the reader to engage with the character. Backstory is something the reader will require at some point, but there’s no point giving it to them until they need it.

Here’s some examples of what I mean:

A man wants to know all about the woman he loves after he falls in love with her.

The police want to know what kind of a person the suspect is after the crime has occurred.

A teacher wants to know what kind of family life a kid has after he comes to class covered in bruises.

Backstory will give a clearer idea of what kind of person we’re reading about, but if you put it in too soon you will end up stealing your own thunder.

It’s not the knowing of backstory that makes the character interesting. It’s being interested in the character that makes you want to know the backstory.

The problem is, the writer already finds the character interesting (that’s why they’re writing their story), so it’s easy to assume others will to. But you have to make the reader want to know more about the character without telling them what they’ve already done. 

You have to do it by showing what they’re doing right now. 

And if what they’re doing right now is interesting enough, then the reader will want to know more. In fact they’ll be desperate for any tidbit you throw their way. And that’s when you’ve got them right where you want them... er, I mean, that’s when you can provide a more comprehensive picture for your beloved readers.
Only 24 letters to go! If you found this post moderately interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Sarah Tokeley said...

I'm guilty of too much backstory, especially in first drafts. I've just sent a first chapter for a critique and I'm pretty sure that's going to come back with that comment.

Melanie said...

I am guilty of too little backstory - but you've provided some great tips on how to weave this in within a story. Thanks for this!

Ryan Sullivan said...

Here's another post that gives me some confidence that I'm doing something right. I'm not starting the story earlier than it should (i.e. in the backstory zone), and I usually stay in the moment, until something happens that gives a reason for that snippet of backstory to be revealed. I'm sure dealing with this will be an interesting part of the revision stage.

mooderino said...

@sarah-it's not always about getting rid of it, just working it in better.


@Ryan-I always find you need less than you think. But it also helps to give characters interesting stuff in their past.

Sandra Tyler said...

interesting. especially the part about getting to know someone AFTER you fall in love with them. Then what IS falling in love? You got me thinkin'.

Anonymous said...

Great Post! Backstory a must, even if it doesn't make it in the final cut. Humor, as this fine man posesses, a definite plus! Thanks for visiting my blog!

mooderino said...

@sandra-did i just blow your mind?

@rebecca-thanks for visiting mine!

Suze said...

I think you can use backstory to tantalize. This depends on the structure of the narrative but it doesn't necessarily have to mean the tedious bits of a character's history. I know that flashbacks are easily abused in lesser hands but they can, when executed with care and skill, form a part of the forward-moving braid -- and even add to its momentum.

It's tricky, this business of making a reader fall in love with your character -- because that initial explosion has a lot to do with something ineffable, and so some of that force of attraction and interest comes down to voice, as it nearly always does for me as a prospective consumer of fiction (and even non-fiction, if I'm honest.)

So I think inducing a sort love, if that's the right word, between your reader and your character, comes down to a very tricky melange of unanswered questions, spark and plot -- as close to airtight as you can get it (plot.)

On a side note, a few months ago, you mentioned in a post something about being a magician who can't be enchanted by your own tricks. That metaphor has helped me a lot as I approach my work.

Deana said...

Backstory is still something I'm trying to master. This post really helped put it into perspective:)

mooderino said...

@suze-once you become a magician yourself, the whole wonderment that got you interested in the first place goes away, but it's replaced by something else, the joy of creation.

@Deana-glad to be of help!

Paula Martin said...

Excellent advice, Mood, and you've got it the right way round too. Backstory is only interesting once you've become interested in characters here and now. Drip-feeding backstory to your readers is a way to keep them wanting more!

judysnwnotes said...

Like you said:
"It’s not the knowing of backstory that makes the character interesting. It’s being interested in the character that makes you want to know the backstory.

enjoyed this - I will return

momto8 said...

you put into words what I knew but never knew I knew! I always wondered why I like some books better than others. very interesting and insightful!!!
i am your newest follower..pls follow back if you can.

D.G. Hudson said...

I agree, how backstory is handled determines the pace of the tale. In a epic, it's almost a necessary since the time span is great and so is the setting. (I like reading that sort of info to set the scene.)

Thanks for visiting my blog, I'm now following yours! Nice to meet you via the A to Z!

S. L. Hennessy said...

Ahahahaha, that picture was AWESOME. What a great intro to back stories. This was a terrific post!
Happy A-Z blogging.

nutschell said...

"It’s not the knowing of backstory that makes the character interesting. It’s being interested in the character that makes you want to know the backstory." = Love this quote, mooody. It's so true! I also love that picture. Gives me some great story ideas.

mooderino said...


@judy-will be checking out your blog too.

@momto8-glad to follow back.

@DG-I agree, the genre also dictates the approach somewhat. Glad to have you aboard!

@SL-thanks for dropping by. Will be visiting you back soon.

@nutschell-one day I'll put all my quotes in a book and be famous. One day...

Marta Szemik said...

My last backstory allowed me to spin off a novella about secondary characters. I consider creating backstories an art form. They're not easy, but can (and should) become meaningful to the main story.

Anonymous said...

I keep the rule of "show, not tell" in my mind when I think about the backstory dump. I'd much rather show the readers the character's past through dialogue, actions, etc if I can. Enjoying your ABCs so far!

mooderino said...

@Marta-incosequential backstory is the most annoying. Good backstory is hard to do, but a pleasure to read.

@jesstopper-hope you keep enjjoying them.

Susan Oloier said...

That picture could totally be a writing prompt!
I try to weave backstory into my novels. But it wasn't always the way I wrote. Took a lot of time to get to this point.

mooderino said...

@susan-it's tricky finding the right balance.

GailROwens said...

Love the phrase 'drip feed'. It reminds me of how my dad grew 10-11 ft tall tomato plants. He used hospital IV bags to drip Miracle Grow on his plants. Biggest tomatoes in the county! This is the greatest way to view backstory...slowly. But what potential for a memorable character!

mooderino said...

@Gail-I only hope your father used those giant tomatoes for good.

Craig Edwards said...

I too fall into too much backstory sometimes - I think that stuff is really interesting and lose sight that the purpose is to tell the original story. A fine line to walk.

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