Our stories have two basic parts: backstory and front story. Front story deals with the main events of the novel. Backstory is just that--what came before the present era of the plot.
The problem with backstory is that it's a lot of telling. Done well, it can be captivating. But if it isn't done well or if there's simply too much, we run the risk of losing our reader--whether that be the person who purchased it from a book store or our dream agent.
I'm always going to argue that backstory is necessary, because it gives depth and strengthens a plot in a way that front story can't. Backstory can continue themes, it can spark revelatory light as to the significance of certain events, and it can give a solid foundation for the character. The question really isn't if it's important, it's how to write it, where it should be placed in a novel, and how much should be given at one time.
Contemporary thought and form says that backstory shouldn't be included in the first few chapters of a novel. In her novel Between the Lines, Jessica Page Morrell says that "backstory, if used incorrectly, can stall a story" (Morrell 18). The opening chapter is where a reader gets a sense of voice, plot, setting, the protagonist, and point of view. Primary scenes need action. Launching into backstory before the front story is established is a mistake--and a sure way to lose the reader (page 32). Morrell states, backstory "should only be included if the events that follow cannot be understood without it" (Morrell 32).
So how do we do it? We have all this crucial information that we know is important to our stories. How do we write it well?
Sometimes a little backstory is needed up front. That's for us as writers to step back and evaluate for ourselves. But if it isn't, Morrell advises "strategically witholding information until the last minute, even as you tease readers with bits of information and minor skirmishes" (page 33). James Scott Bell uses Hemingway's "iceberg metaphor" in Plot and Structure, advising to leave 90% of the information hidden--until it is needed. By only revealing a portion of the backstory at the time, we create questions. With clever references, we can increase tension and spark curiousity, keeping the reader hooked. It can even become a foreshadowing device depending on the nature of the story.
So, I tried this out. I looked at my giant chunks of backstory, mentally removed them, and went to a new opening scene of the novel. Then I started weaving in little lines, inflections even. You know what? It created more conflict (which is a great thing for a plot!) and it created more questions. In fact, the result encouraged me so much that I'm excited to go back and weave in more intrigue. And that's a good thing because there's a lot of work ahead of me. I'm still feeling my way through, but I think I have a better idea of what the finished product will be.
What are some of your favorite "tricks" in revealing backstory?
So, wanna know something cool? Rachelle Gardner, agent extraordinaire, posted on backstory yesterday (cba-ramblings.blogspot.com). I thought this was super cool because a) I definitely needed to hear what she had to say and b)it means that I'm on the right track with my changes. Woohoo! What cool confirmation! The post above written last weekend so all my information came from the sources listed above.
8 hours ago