Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On Backstory

Back in November, I came across a short film on youtube that revolved around an aspiring writer's experience of day one of NaNoWriMo (I tried desperately to find it again so I could embed it in this post, but to no avail).

At first, it depicted a woman sitting at her desk with her computer and her coffee, wondering what she could possibly write 50,000 words about. Then, with a basic idea in her head, she began to write. As she did, the camera delved inside the story, with actors acting out the writer's writing. This was an amusing way of doing it, especially when the one character's personality completely changed two or three times, showing that the writer couldn't decide whether this character was going to be the good guy or the bad guy.

However, the best part of the short film was when one character interrupted the MC, who was discussing what the plan was for the immediate future. "You can't do that," he said to her. "Don't you know that when I was a boy--"

"No, no," interrupted another, very casually. "There's no time for backstory now - we have to help this young lady with her quest."

"But when I was a boy--!"

"No time for backstory!"

For some reason I found this incredibly funny. But it's also very true. At the start of a novel, any novel, your reader will care more about what's happening now than what happened in the past. The reader wants to be pulled into an exciting story, not listen to a history lesson - they simply aren't invested enough in your MC to care about what's happened to them in the past.

Imagine meeting someone new. At first, all you really want to do is get to know said person on the surface, find out how they act, whether they are nice enough to befriend. After you've got to know that person on the surface, once you care somewhat for them, then you talk about the past. Become more interested in who they are and what they've done and where they've been. Same principle here.

In The Maze Runner by James Dashner, the MC, Thomas, wakes up in a box with no memory of his past. This happens in sentence one, chapter one. There is ... no ... backstory. None. And that's why the book pulls you in so much - because Dashner puts all his effort into telling the story that is happening here and now, rather than one that happened ages ago. Because Thomas has no memory, the reader discovers things about the past with him, as he discovers them.

But what if your MC's actions are justified or explained by his past? What if backstory is essential to the story, and essential at the beginning? In my WIP, my MC, Zeth, is like Thomas: he also lost his memory. But this is backstory - it happened six years before chapter one. It is also the driving force behind many of Zeth's decisions at the start of the book, so the reader has to know it. What do I do?

These are my thoughts:

  • If it's crucial, then reveal it. But only if it's crucial. Don't reveal things that the reader doesn't have to know, things that the story will make sense without.
  • Don't info-dump. When I first wrote the scene in which Zeth revealed his memory loss, I had him stand up in front of an entire room full of people, most of whom he wasn't very acquainted with, and deliver his entire life story. Big mistake. People don't usually talk about the past, especially to people they don't know, and especially if their past hurt them. Reveal the crucial details in a realistic manner.
  • Don't waste it. Don't reveal backstory simply for the sake of revealing it. Of course, that's important, but try and use it for something else, too. If it comes out in the form of dialogue, don't waste that dialogue; instead use it to build an effective conversation scene that affects the plot at this moment, that builds tension or deepens character relationships.
So, these are my ideas on revealing backstory early on in a manuscript. Do you agree? Disagree? Have anything to add? Tell me in the comments.


  1. Interesting post. Here are my thoughts on teh subject.

    Writing backstory and exposition so it doesn't stand out or bring things to a grindng halt is a skill in itself. The most common problem isn't that backstory is 'wrong', it's that it's boring or irrelevant and clumsily worked in. All stories require some backstory, and some even have it right up front. As you point out the tendency is to just put it in through info dump or similar, but backstory should follow the rules of any story, it should have a beginning, middle and end, it shoulddn't be too obvious or on-the-nose, and it should be interesting.

    Moody Writing

  2. alot of the times people will reveal back story just to flaunt how amazing they think their ideas are when really it is not relevant to the overall story line. Back story is something definitely to be careful with.

  3. Great insights! Sounds like a funny vid, I'd like to see it:)

  4. mooderino: I agree; great points. Backstory can feel out of place or awkward, or just be plain boring, if it isn't worked in in an exciting way.

    Nick: Absolutely, backstory has to be relevant. Awesome name, by the way :)

    Mark: Thanks! I'd love to show it to you! I'm a bit gutted I couldn't find it.

  5. I struggled with this in my current WIP. I first had a prologue, then made it Chapter One, and then I cut it completely, and now, it's a whittled down Prologue.

    There had to be a little back story, as my MC loses his mother, which is the catalyst for EVERYTHING. So my prologue is less than 5 pages and only contains the scene of my MC losing his mother.

    It took awhile to find the balance, and it was grueling, but I think I found it. We'll see what my publisher's editor thinks!!!

  6. Thank you! I will plod through a first chapter of backstory, but it bores me. Once I read a book where a character explained his whole backstory at his first AA meeting, which I found so unrealistic that I put down the book right there.

    However, I think you can go a little *too* far with the here and now. If the main character is constantly confused, and no one EVER explains to him what's going on, the reader will be confused and irritated as well.

    So the question is, when can you bring in the backstory? Hmm...

  7. Jay: It's so difficult when a backstory event justifies everything, or when it's a catalyst for everything, as you say. Sounds like you've got it pretty much sorted now, so I'm glad about that :) I hope your editor thinks so too!

    Laura: Ugh. First chapter's of backstory. And, yes, that sounds exceptionally unrealistic. Even worse than a boy telling a whole inn-full of stranger about his most traumatising experience. I think, the idea about here and now is that if you must reveal something, then reveal it. Don't leave the reader unnecessarily in the dark. But only reveal what's crucial. And reveal it seemlessly and in an interesting manner, too.

  8. To begin with, the name "Zeth" is an amazing name. I love unusual names, and the bad guy in my WIP is actually named "Reth."
    Moving on. On info-dumping; yes, I had a big problem with that. I had at least four times in my novel where I made HUGE info-dumps. Something I realized is that, as you were saying, if a person has been hurt by their backstory, they probably won't be too excited about telling people anything about themselves. This might be a little off-topic, but if they don't like their backstory, that will severely affect their relationships with other characters.
    My advice for backstory is, know it yourself, but don't dump it all into your book. Unless it ties in somehow, we don't really need to know what your characters favorite gum flavor is. However, it might be helpful for you to know if your character won't touch apricot flavored anything, but loves banana.


Your comments are awesome. I usually reply to each one individually, so please click the "Subscribe by Email" button or check back here in a few days to see my response. Thanks for commenting!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...