I’m quickly bored with novels that have little backstory. I need to know the depths of a character in order to care about them. It's true, however, that books from previous generations weighed the beginning down by unloading the character’s previous life in one huge heap so that it became the “elephant in the room”.
Today’s readers want:
- To be plunked into the story action immediately.
- At the same time, to immediately and intensely care for the character.
- After the reader cares about the character, to avoid long flashback scenes to get them caught up.
- The only way I’ve learned to do this is to drop hints from the backstory from the very first page and weave the past--one slender thread at a time--into the narrative.
Backstory seen through the eyes of another character.
In the following excerpt from the classic Shane, we see the first hint of the hero as seen from the POV of the narrator.
‘He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.
The stranger nodded again. “Call me Shane,” he said. Then to me: “Bob it is. You were watching me for quite a spell coming up the road.”
It was not a questions. It was a simple statement. “Yes…”
I stammered, “Yes. I was.”
“Right,” he said. “I like that. A man who watches what’s going on around him will make his mark.”’
What backstory do we gain from the narrator’s POV?
- The hero Shane is no ordinary man.
- He’s seen danger, and a lot of it.
- He has courage, but is friendly.
- He has scruples.
Weaving backstory in through inner dialogue.
In the books I’ve written, I’ve predominately used the intimate 2nd person POV. Here in the first few paragraphs of Captured by Moonlight (winner of The Grace Award, and Canada's The Word Guild Award) I weave my heroine’s backstory with action and inner dialogue.
‘Amritsar, Northern India, Late October, 1921
If the head woman from the temple looked in her direction, Laine Harkness wouldn’t give two squashed mangoes for her life, or Eshana’s. Laine could never be confused for an Indian, but with the tail end of this cotton sari covering half her face, and her brown eyes peeking over, she simply had to blend in. Still, any minute now that hatchet-faced female standing guard to the girls’ quarters could let out a pulse-freezing yell.
A sudden blare of a conch shell from within the Hindu temple stretched Laine’s nerves. She and Eshana must be mad to risk this exploit again. The principal matron at Laine’s hospital would give her a severe reprimand if she ever found out. More likely sack her. If either she or Eshana had any sense at all, they’d turn around, go back to the mission, and mind their own business.
But a line from Wordsworth, one of Adam’s favorites, ran through her mind...little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love...
Blast! She wouldn’t call what she and Eshana were about to do little, but please let it be unremembered. Unnoticed would be better still.’
From this excerpt we gain the following backstory:
- Heroine’s full name
- Some of her physical characteristics.
- Her occupation.
- She’s gutsy.
- Someone called Adam is, or was, important to her.
Corralling and blatantly displaying the "elephant in the room" for shock contrast.
Sometimes however, it is effective to show the “elephant in the room” right away. The following excerpt is from my non-fiction book Finding Sarah Finding Me. I front-loaded a bit of backstory to contrast the emotional dilemma of the first chapter.
‘The clandestine nature of my trip paints a picture of me I don’t want to look at too closely. As I drive from Maple Ridge to Abbotsford twenty miles away, I wonder if I am one heartbeat away from being a stalker.
I find the high school after several wrong turns. Squelching down the fear of getting caught, I park in the school lot and drum up the nerve to walk in the front doors. I repeat under my breath, “It’s no different than walking into Lana’s high school at home in Maple Ridge. It’s no different at all.”
I’m an ordinary person just like any ordinary parent in the Fraser Valley, the Bible Belt of British Columbia. I’m a Sunday school teacher, a bonded bank teller, a woman of forty-one, hair lightened blond, dressed like any nice mom in jeans, casual shirt, running shoes, my bag slung over my shoulder. I am David’s wife, mom to seventeen-year-old Lana, fifteen-year-old Kyle, and ten-year-old Robert.
I am also the woman who wrote in her journal last night, “For twenty years I’ve comforted myself that this time would come, that my birth-daughter and I could legally be reunited. And now I am afraid of her.”
From this excerpt we learn the following backstory:
- The narrator is experiencing an emotional crisis.
- The narrator isn’t sure who she is.
- The narrator is shocked by this self-revelation.
- The reader might be able to relate to the narrator from similar emotional crisis in our own lives.
Backstory is as important to the story as is the ending. One shows the reasons for the need, and the ending shows how eventually the need is met. The middle of the book brings these two together.
Just avoid the elephant, and think more along the lines of weaving with silk thread.