Backstory is something writers often struggle with, largely because of the writing myths out there that make it seem like something that’s best avoided. Ironic, because by avoiding backstory, writers tend to doom their novels right out of the starting gate.
The surprising truth is that backstory is the most seminal layer of any novel. Without it, your protagonist has amnesia, so she can’t read meaning into anything, nor can she desire or fear anything except, of course, generically. She wants unconditional love, she fears rejection. Ho hum. Don’t we all?
The damage done by the avoid-backstory-myth goes even deeper. Because writers are often discouraged from using backstory, it implies that they therefore don’t need to create backstory, either. So when asked why their protagonist did something, they’re stumped. Like the client I had who, when asked why his protagonist became a hit woman, paused for so long that it was clear he’d never even thought about it. Finally, he blurted, “Um, because she has abandonment issues?” Nice try.
Show me the person who doesn’t have abandonment issues, and I’ll show you the person who hasn’t figured it out yet. We all have abandonment issues. Story specific backstory would have revealed why she has abandonment issues and why that lead her to becoming a hit woman. Hey, I’d read a book that gave me insight into that decision.
In other words, by avoiding backstory you not only lock your reader out of the story, you lock yourself out.
With that in mind, let’s dive into three very astute questions about backstory culled from the comments on my last post:
From Kathryn Craft: I was wondering if at some point you would address when is the best time to introduce backstory in your novel.
The answer, as the old joke about voting goes, is: early and often. Hopefully, beginning on the very first page. Let’s do a little field research, shall we? (Don’t you just love the fact that we can do field research in our PJs thanks to the trusty Interweb?)
Go to Amazon and check out the first pages of novels from all genres. For example:
Backstory is prevalent in every novel, so why do writers almost always ask when to introduce it? Since writers tend to be voracious readers, why don’t we already know that it appears on every page?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Because when backstory is woven in well, you don’t notice that it is backstory. When the protagonist is sweating bullets, trying to figure out what the hell to do in the present – they don’t leave the present, but their mind does. It rips through the past trying evaluate what’s happening, and what their best move is, given their agenda. The protagonist does this because it’s exactly what humans do, too. In literature as in life, right?
Here’s what we miss as readers: Those memories the protagonist rips through are backstory. But because we, the reader, are actively involved in the story, we don’t make that distinction. It’s like the magician’s classic misdirect.
That’s why it’s so easy to believe the writing world when it advises you to stay the heck away from backstory, especially in the beginning of your novel. In fact, writers are often told to avoid “backstory” altogether, as if it will only bog down the story or worse, stop it cold, not to mention bore readers. This couldn’t be less true.
Backstory is the most fundamental layer of story; it is what drives your novel forward, giving everything that happens in it story-specific meaning. Make no mistake: backstory will be present, in one form or another, on every page you write.
Think of it this way -- when your protagonist steps onto page one, she brings with her the one thing we never do leave home without: her past. Not merely her memory of past events, but – more importantly – what those events taught her about how the world works.
Our subjective past is the decoder ring we all use to make sense of the world around us. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
That’s why you, as the author, cannot write a compelling novel without already knowing your protagonist’s relevant backstory before you get to page one.
So why does the writing world warn us to stay away from it? Because backstory can indeed turn deadly when woven in poorly. Yes, we’re talking about the dreaded info dump. I wrote a whole post on this on Writer Unboxed (here is the link), but right now I want to dive into the next question, so we can figure out how to avoid info dumps large and small, and instead deftly weave backstory into a novel so deftly that no one will even know it is backstory.
From Fae Rowen: After the first, second, and, uh, third readings, my partners here at WITS always tell me my female lead is not likable. It’s definitely NOT because she’s perfect, because she isn’t. She’s usually very angry, though, and there hasn’t been time to sprinkle in the backstory so the reader understands why she acts as she does. How can you be true to your character’s actions and reactions early on?
What makes us care about a character (whether we like said character or not) is not what they do, it’s why they do it. And not simply the surface “why” – as in: Jane just shoved an old man crossing the street because she’s in a hurry and he was walking slow.
What we want to know is something deeper: How is Jane justifying what she just did? What, in her life, taught her that shoving that old guy was okay? Which brings us to the key question the writer must answer: What specifically happened to Jane, in her past, that created the moral compass that this story is putting to the test?
Ah yes, backstory! What the reader comes for is insight into why characters do what they do. And that’s revealed in one way: How is Jane making sense of this? If you take us inside your seemingly unlikable protagonist, and give us insight into how she sees the world as she struggles to achieve her overarching agenda, we will be riveted.
So, how do you sprinkle backstory in? Via your protagonist’s internal struggle as she grapples with the tough choice that every single scene forces her to make. Backstory is always woven into the narrative in service of what’s happening in the story present. This is because the protagonist has called it up to try to figure out what the hell to do in the moment.
So, to circle back around to the question: you’re not looking for places to sprinkle in backstory, you’re looking for places to take us into her head, so we can glimpse her inner struggle – that is: why she’s doing it. In your case, for instance, you might look for the places where your protagonist is doing one of those mean, angry things.
In this pursuit it helps to keep in mind what the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel said, “In a good play, everyone is in the right.” What he meant, I think, is that each one of us has our own subjective reality, and based on that, we are all doing what we believe is right. In other words, no one is mean for meanness sake, or “evil” just because. There is always a logic behind our actions – and that logic is created by what our experiences (yep, our backstory) have taught us. Point being, the more you understand the deep internal why driving what your protagonist does, the more you’ll be able to craft a novel that will have readers caring about them from the get go – even when what they’re doing on the surface isn’t particularly “likeable.” Especially then.
And finally: truth is, caring about a character doesn’t necessarily mean liking them at all. It means being curious about them: not simply about what they do, but about why on earth they’re doing it. Which brings us to the last question:
From Alice Fleury: I am a Joe Friday in writing. Just the facts, ma’am. I am amazed when I read all that stuff the writer pries out of the protagonist’s head. So how does one write more than two sentences of interior thoughts?
Great question! The trouble with “just the facts, ma’am” writing is that it tends to focus primarily on the external facts – that is, what happens. So it traps readers on the surface, locking them out of the real story. Here’s the secret: like info dumps, interior thoughts, in and of themselves, can be deadly. Why? Because unless they relate to something the protagonist (or POV character) is actively struggling with in the moment – something that has an immediate consequence -- they will stop the story.
The goal is to avoid taking long trips down memory lane for no real reason. Do not allow a character to muse about things for the sake of musing, and never have characters think about things that don’t impact what they’re going through, but that you – as the author – want the reader to know.
The kind of internal thoughts the reader craves are always in relation to action, that is, to a difficult decision the protagonist is being forced to make in the moment.
Let me suggest an example that highlights everything we’ve been talking about here. Caroline Leavitt’s riveting new novel, Cruel Beautiful World, opens with a 34 page first chapter. The first line of the novel is: “Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.” The chapter begins that morning, and it’s not till the last page of that chapter that Lucy finally climbs into William’s VW and leaves. The bulk of the chapter is backstory. Over the course of the school day Lucy calls up memories – sometimes in snippets, sometimes in full-fledged flashbacks – as she struggles with the decision she’s making in the story present: to leave home, forever, without telling her sister Charlotte or Iris, the woman who raised them. Both of whom she loves dearly. And yet she leaves, having convinced herself – via her reading of past events – that she’s doing the right thing, and that neither Charlotte or Iris will suffer too much upon discovering she’s gone. You can read an excerpt here, but my advice: read the whole first chapter, it’s a master class in the importance of backstory, and how to seamlessly weave it in.
And now, I’m once again open for questions for my next column – leave them here in the comments, or shoot me an email at: lisa@wiredforstory.
Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com
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