I’ve been reading quite a few opening chapters of manuscripts lately and one thing that seems to come up a lot is the ability to manage the actual story, versus backstory. As writers, we all want to welcome the reader into our book. The best way to do this is to immerse the reader in a story. Backstory can get in the way of this. Which begs the question: how to deal with backstory and why is it such a problem?
What is Backstory?
Let’s start at the beginning. Backstory is anything that isn’t part of the actual scene that is happening on the page right now. In the opening scene in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, Evie and her sister Viola are talking about a book that Evie’s reading. Then their neighbour Charlie comes to visit and they all go for a walk along the river. That’s what’s happening in the scene on the page.
But then, on page 7, there are two paragraphs which fill the reader in on who Charlie is, and what his relationship has been like wth Evie since childhood. None of that is happening in the scene on the page; it’s all happened in the past, So that’s backstory.
What Backstory is Good For
Backstory can provide a change of pace. It can provide a moment of respite for the reader when the tension has been driven to its highest point. If we keep the tension high all the time, it can be too much. We need a lull, a moment to regain our breath. That’s when backstory can work well.
Backstory can also fill in important information about relationships between characters and about each character’s past. In the backstory in my book that I’ve mentioned above, I say that, when they were children, “having Charlie next door filled Evie’s days with fun and adventure, especially as Charlie did anything Evie dared him to do.”
Charlie and Evie have feelings for one another, although Evie isn’t quite sure what her feelings are, and her feelings are complicated by her history and long friendship wth Charlie. I needed the reader to quickly get a sense of their long-standing friendship and there are two ways I could have done this. I could have had a whole scene of flashback showing something that Charlie and Evie used to do when they were younger, and showing how much fun they had together. Or, I could fill the reader in on the outlines of their relationship by using backstory, which is what I chose to do. Why?
Well, I’ll answer that in just a moment. First, let’s look at some of the problems with backstory.
Why You Should Beware of Backstory
The trouble with backstory is that it gets in the way. The reader is just starting to be drawn into a scene when they’re abruptly jerked out of the scene and cast back into some detail of what the character did or thought or felt in the past, or some detail about the character’s relationship with another character.
Jerking the reader out of the story is disruptive. Because then they have to settle back in again. This takes time. We want the reader to experience the “waking dream”, which is John Gardner’s term for the state a reader should be in when consumed by a novel, transported to another world, living another world while actually remaining on the couch. Backstory is the single biggest disruption to the waking dream state.
Backstory is the single biggest disruption to the waking dream state.
Backstory in the Beginning of a Book
Welcoming the reader into the story and laying the foundation for the waking dream—plumping up the pillows and smoothing out the duvet if you will—are most important at the beginning of the book. If the reader can’t settle, if there are lumps under the mattress and the pillow is the wrong height, then the reader is going to close the covers of the book. Backstory is one of the lumps under the mattress.
So that’s why, in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, I chose to give the information about Evie and Charlie in two paragraphs, rather than as a full scene in flashback. We didn’t need a scene. Narrative summary, or telling, works better in this case to quickly convey the information.
It’s also why I waited until page 7 before I did so. It means there are several pages before the backstory where Evie and Charlie are on the page in the scene talking to one another, interacting, showing themselves and their relationship to the reader, drawing the reader in to the waking dream. Then, just to fill in any gaps, I quickly divert to a moment of backstory. Just as quickly, as soon as I’ve imparted only exactly what the reader needs to know right then and there, I leave the backstory and dive straight back into the scene.
Drip Feed the Backstory: 4 Tips
- The key with backstory is only ever give exactly as much as you need. Never give a word more than necessary.
- What I did, especially with the first few chapters of my book, was to go over every line of backstory and tighten it as much as I could. I took out every single word of backstory that wasn’t needed.
- Another way to do this is to take out every single piece of backstory from your story. Then add it back in, line by line, only putting back in the lines that are essential.
- Always ask yourself: does the reader need to know this right now? If not, then leave it out. Trust the reader. They are as smart as the writer, or often smarter!
So, if you’re having the backstory blues, I hope this helps. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions!