As a writer I’d just love to start my book with a first chapter called something like: “Backstory – read it here“. That would be a brilliant cop out. I could just list all my characters and their lives, something like this:
Sarah, the heroine, is a circus clown. Her dad left her when she was five, her mum is an alcoholic, she has two brothers but they don’t get on. She is kind and witty, a bit untidy, her childhood has left her with a distrust of marriage and family life.
Phew. My work would be done, and then I could get on to the fun part of actually telling Sarah’s story in the present. So what exactly is wrong with starting a story in this way?
- Well, you’ve probably noticed from my piece about Sarah that it’s very dull. I want my readers to care about the characters. Even though I’ve dumped a load of info about Sarah, it’s still hard to get a sense of what she is really like, and so the readers probably aren’t too interested in reading on.
- I’ve “told” the readers what Sarah is like, rather than letting them find out for themselves. I want my characters to come alive, as though they are real people. If the readers get to know Sarah gradually, through her actions and dialogue, they will be much more immersed in the story. I’ve told the readers Sarah is “kind and witty“, but it’s very important not to just tell the reader what they are supposed to think. And if the reader forms a different opinion about Sarah to mine, then that’s fine, as well. We all have different opinions about people. That’s exactly how it is in real life!
- I’ve given a lot of information about Sarah at once. As a reader, I hate being bombarded with facts. It makes me feel I’m back at school, trying to learn something for an exam, and I can even start to feel quite stressed! It’s much better to dripfeed the backstory gradually, so the reader can absorb it easliy without a huge effort of memory.
And now the hard part. How can you get backstory across in a subtle way? Here are a few options:
- Dialogue. Take this extract from Sophie Weston’s excellent novel, The Cinderella Story. The heroine is talking to a teacher at her school:
‘You know, people keep telling me you’re a tear-away. You don’t care about school. You hardly ever do your homework. But you don’t seem like that in my class, Joanne.’
No one had looked at her like that before. So interested. So warm.
‘Now why don’t you tell me why you really ran away from home, hmm? The real reason?”
Well, that was impossible, of course. What could she say? My so-called aunt hates me and her husband is a drunk who hits me?
In those few sentences, we’ve learned loads about Joanne, without it being too in your face. You just have to watch with dialogue that you don’t make it clunky. Don’t write things like, ‘Do you remember that day in 1997 when we met George, the man who later became our stepfather?’ That just sounds weird, and jolts the readers way out of the story.
- Write about the character indirectly, using their voice. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, so here’s another great example, this time from Barbara Hannay’s A Bride at Birralee:
Callum Roper slouched against a veranda post and glared at the distant could of dust. In the outback, dust travelling at speed meant one thing – a vehicle heading this way.
He wasn’t in the mood for visitors.
Turning his back on the view, he lowered his long body into a deep canvas chair and snapped off the top off a beer. He took a deep swig and scowled. Truth was, he wasn’t in the mood for anything much these days. Even beer didn’t taste the same.
How long did it go on for, this grief business?
Again, we have an excellent idea now of location and Callum’s introvert character, and the fact that he’s grieving, all in a few easy sentences. (Although I’m sure they weren’t that easy to write :) )
Fitting in all the backstory in an interesting and subtle way is one of the most difficult things writers have to do. In the novel I’m writing at the moment (working title Revelations) , the heroine is a widow, with a very complicated past. I have rewritten the opening chapters four times, trying to get it right.
I recently had a really good tip from another writer. If you feel a scene that you’ve written isn’t working, go through and highlight in yellow all the parts that are referring to the past. See what will happen if you eliminate them altogether. There’s no need at all to force feed your readers information about the past right from the start of the story. A lot of the time, readers actaully enjoy discovering things bit by bit.
Apart from romance I also read a lot of sci-fi, and one of my favourite books is Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars. At the beginning of this book, the reader is thrown into a world with absolutely no backstory and no explanation from the author. This novel really sticks in my mind, because when I first started reading it, I turned page after page thinking, what the hell? I was totally bewildered. But this is exactly the effect Lem was after. The author is describing an astronaut’s return to planet earth, at a time so far in the future that the world is a place he no longer recognises. The astronaut is completely disorientated.
If Lem had filled me in on the backstory right from the beginning, I would have understood what was going on…but I wouldn’t have shared the astronaut’s sense of disorientation. I was completely immersed in the hero’s feelings during the opening scenes. It is a masterly novel, and a classic example of witholding backstory to brilliant effect.
Are there any novels you’ve read where you think the author got it right with the backstory? Or got it hideously wrong? Are you a writer? Do you struggle with backstory as much as I do – and do you have any tips?? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!