What my high school reunion taught me about writing BACKSTORY

By |2012-07-16T15:44:32-05:00July 16th, 2012|Uncategorized|15 Comments

Sitting at a table at my high school reunion recently, this thought struck me: “This is how backstory should work.”

Huh, you say. Let me explain.

I’ve know most of the people at my high school reunion more than half my life. I didn’t have to ask mundane questions to get to know them. When I looked in their faces, I saw not the wrinkles but teenagers I remembered from our school days.

We were (are) a close knit group, attending English class or studying for Algebra or cheering our Austin High School Maroon football team. We laughed about our Red Jacket (the drill team) adventures, relived football losses, groaned over teachers and relived our glory days on the yearbook and newspaper staff as reminisced.

I knew their past.

But what dawned on me was that what I remembered from those good ole days is only a small portion of their story. As we shared over the three day reunion, I learned of their triumphs, their heartaches, their success since we’d last been together.

Did I learn everything at once? No. Piece by piece they shared stories. Backstory came to light that had shaped who they were today.

Like all my high school friends, I know my characters. After all, I am creating them.

And like my friends who told their stories over the time we were together, that’s how I must reveal my character’s background–slowly as it relates to the story and character development.

This is where new writers often err in their opening scenes, revealing anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.

There are times when a bit of backstory is necessary for the reader to grasp what’s going on and why it’s important. But, editors and agents agree a newly submitted manuscript with backstory dump in the beginning scenes is the biggest kiss of death for the work.

Writers, whether new or seasoned, must tread carefully when considering how much backstory to include. We should trust the reader’s intelligence to “get” what’s going on without providing lengthy backstory.

Think about it. Is it really necessary for the reader to know Mary has been married three times, each relationship ending badly, to “understand” why she’s looking for a good relationship. Usually, that kind of backstory, while indeed important, should be doled out later in the story and bit by bit.

A general rule is keep backstory either absent from the opening or only include as much as is absolutely necessary to set the scene for the inciting incident.

To quote Donald Maass, “no backstory in the first fifty pages.” And then, only to do one or more of these things:

1. Raise the stakes
2. Reveal motivations
3. Express innermost fears
4. Reveal obstacles

Easier said than done for most writers, including me.

I think of backstory as “BS.” Literally. I ask myself does the reader really need to know this in order to relate to my character? The answer is usually no!

Another way to think of backstory is as carefully placed clues to the mystery of the character and why they are the way they are. Hints to keep the reader turning the page.

Just as I discovered my old friends’ stories gradually, we writers need to let readers find backstory clues throughout the book until they’re brought all together to explain how and why the character changed or clarify whatever the character did.

What do you think about backstory dumps in the opening pages? Do you close the book or keep on reading?