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Put Backstory to Work
By Kandy Shepherd
“Backstory” is pretty much anything that happened to your characters before the moment you chose to start their story. Characters need a backstory—it’s what makes them tick, what gives them the motivation, goals and potential for conflict that will drive your story forward. Backstory is what helps readers to understand your characters. This helps them engage and that’s what keeps readers turning the pages.
I enjoy writing reunion romances, where a hero and heroine who have a past are reunited in the present and fall in love all over again. Stranded with Her Greek Tycoon (Harlequin Mills & Boon (February 2018) is about an estranged husband and wife who haven’t seen each other for more than two years after a bitter break. When I was writing this story, I was very glad I knew how to handle backstory as what happened in the past to these two characters was vital to the “frontstory” when they meet again and to their future.
When writing romance, we’re encouraged to get the heroine and hero together on the page as soon as possible: the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence.
While plunging the reader straight into the action hooks and intrigues, it also introduces the reader to characters who are strangers. To care about what happens to our characters (and so keep turning the pages), our readers need to know and understand them. That’s where a skilful use of backstory can become the backbone of your story.
As a writer you need to know an awful lot about your character’s past. This means pretty much what has happened in their lives to make them the people they are and has informed the choices they have made up until the time your story starts. Family, education, past trauma, even birth order can be important.
You need to know all that backstory—your readers only need to know enough of it for them to make sense of your plot, setting and characters.
The challenge as a writer is to introduce backstory without halting the forward momentum of your story. You only include what strengthens and supports your main narrative or “frontstory”. Not big, unsubtle chunks of explanation.
So how to work with backstory without resorting to the dreaded “info dump”, that is, dumping information on the page in indigestible chunks? Fact is, backstory badly handled can be boring and pull your reader right out of your story.
Effectively done, backstory can illuminate strengths and weaknesses of your characters; contrast between the past and the present; and show growth and change. In a romance, it can reveal past experiences and fears that influence present behaviour and form the barriers that stop your characters from falling in love.
There’s a balance, though. Don’t be so wary of info-dumping you don’t give enough detail for your readers to know the how and why of the characters and their stories. My first book for Harlequin Mills & Boon, The Summer They Never Forgot (January 2014) is a reunion story, at the time a first for me. My editor asked me to show more of the characters’ backstories, to take the readers back to the past to experience how the hero and heroine first fell in love way back when. And I’d been so careful to prune backstory to a minimum! The lesson I took away from that is you need to have enough backstory so the readers will understand the characters and why they behave the way they do.
Backstory provides a window into the characters’ pasts. How often and how wide to open that window? How do you know what to leave in, what to leave out and how to actually present it on the pages? There are several techniques you can use either alone or in combination.
Perhaps the most effective way of introducing backstory is to weave it through your story in subtle, small chunks as the story requires. It’s the big picture that you break down into a lot of little screen grabs.
You can manipulate as much or as little about the character you want to reveal. The carefully placed sentence here and there leads to a gradual exposition of the backstory. Think of it as seasoning your story like you would season a recipe. You have a shaker full of spice that is the backstory. Sprinkle it judiciously as flavouring through your story as needed. A sentence here, a succinct paragraph there. Be aware you’ll probably have some spice left in the shaker at the end—you always need to know more about the past than your readers do.
A prologue precedes the main body of your story and is pure backstory. It shows a snapshot of a past event that directly relates to the present story. Your prologue can also be an extract from a diary, a letter or a newspaper story. Whatever, it can present vital information that might be too cumbersome to weave into the frontstory. But any prologue, no matter how skilfully presented, still delays the start of the actual story. So be careful it earns its place on the page by quickly delivering vital information your reader needs to engage with the story that follows.
A flashback plunges your reader right back into the past exactly as it happened. It should strongly impact the front story while being interesting reading in its own right. In a romance, a flashback can show how a past relationship affects the current one. Again, you have to be careful the flashback doesn’t pull the reader top much out of the “frontstory”
Rather than relying on narrative to impart the backstory, natural, realistic dialogue between characters can be used to reveal it. Dialogue can be between the hero and heroine, or secondary characters. Be aware of gratuitous info dumps in dialogue and remember in a romance to keep the focus on the hero and heroine to raise the stakes in their romance as they learn about each other. Anything they say to each other is more powerful than conversation with someone else.
Memory and dreams
An incident in the present might prompt a memory of the past. You can reveal this to the reader through your character’s introspection or dialogue. Remember, memories can be unreliable and the memory invoked could possibly cause conflict with someone else’s memories. That could lead to interesting scenes!
One of the most difficult things about using backstory is letting it go. You’ve created wonderful backgrounds for your characters, built amazing imagined worlds, researched the historical setting for your plot. All that has helped you get your story clear in your mind.
But you need it more than your readers do. Usually, only a fraction of that backstory is needed in your book. It can be quite a learning experience to get the balance right. That’s what first drafts are for—write what you think you need, then prune it back to only what’s essential to drive the story forward.
Tense about tenses
So backstory is the big picture that you break down into a lot of little screen grabs. Getting the tense right in backstory is important to keep the reader clearly in the picture. If you are writing in the simple past tense (he raced up the stairs), you would use the past perfect tense (he had raced up the stairs) for your backstory exposition. If it is a longer piece of back story, write the first couple of sentences using the past perfect “had” to establish it is past, then continue in simple past.
My women’s fiction Reinventing Rose is written in first person, present tense—a tricky tense to handle. The backstory is written in simple past. And, as there is only one point of view, I found dialogue an effective way to handle the backstory of the secondary characters.
Tease and taste
Like seasonings in a meal, effective backstory doesn’t overwhelm but adds flavour. The reader needs to believe in your characters. Revealing their past helps you convince the reader to believe they were living before you chose to write about them. It will also help them believe they will continue living happily-ever-after after you type “The End”.
Dos and don’t of backstory
DO Include backstory only where it strengthens and supports your story.
DO Use backstory to explain your characters’ motivations and goals.
DO Manipulate the backstory for your own purpose, for example, create red herrings in a mystery.
DON’T Tell us all about your characters when you first introduce them, weave it through the story instead.
DON’T Let the past overwhelm the present.
DON’T Be afraid to throw out any backstory that doesn’t propel your story forward.
© Kandy Shepherd 2018
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