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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Story on Backstory

Creating: Making Your Reader Love Backstory

by Randy Ingermanson

If you want to kill your novel, the quickest, surest way to do it is to throw in a big lump of backstory on your first page. Or in your first chapter.

Yes, sure, I've seen published novelists start off with a boatload of backstory. I've seen jugglers juggling burning torches. I've seen an archer shoot an arrow through the balloon atop his wife's head. Blindfolded.

But all of these are risky behaviors. If you want to take risks, there needs to be a payoff somewhere. If you don't know the payoff, then you have no business taking risks.

Backstory, by the way is good. If you don't know your characters' backstory -- all the stuff that happened in their lives up till the time your story started, then odds are good that your story is going to be pretty shallow.

You want to know the backstory of your novel.

The trick here is to make your reader want to know that backstory too. The real trick is to make your reader beg for it.

You don't do that by piling it on in the first chapter, before your reader cares about your characters.

How do you make your reader beg? There are several ways, but they all come down to the same thing. You write a compelling story with strong characters and sharp plot twists.

A plot twist is an unexpected change in the story direction. Your reader thought she knew your character, thought she could predict what would happen next, and was delighted to learn she was wrong. That darned character zigged when he should have zagged. Why?

Most of the time, it's because of something in his past. There's a reason. And now your reader wants to know that reason. Now she's ready for backstory.

The rules for backstory are really pretty simple:
* Just in time.
* Just enough.

"Just in time" means only when the reader needs it and only when the reader wants it.

"Just enough" means that the reader doesn't need to know everything you do. Leave the reader wanting more, not wanting less.

Remember that at least one major category of fiction is all about discovering the backstory -- the mystery.
Once you've got a corpse in the picture, the whole story is about figuring out who did it, why he did it, and how he did it. That's backstory, pure and simple.
But until you've got a corpse, none of that is of any interest.

You have at least six good ways to give your reader backstory, when the time is ripe. Here they are:

* Interior monologue
* Dialogue
* Narrative summary
* Flashback
* A nonlinear timeline
* Research

Let's talk about each of these in turn.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is the sequence of thoughts that pass through a viewpoint character's mind. The reader can hear these, either as word-for-word thoughts or else as the gist of what the character is thinking.

Either way, this is a fine way to give your reader little snippets about your character's backstory.

The key thing here is to treat interior monologue backstory like salt. A little is good -- it makes you thirsty. A lot makes you gag.

If you're going to use interior monologue this way, make the backstory references necessary to the character's line of thinking, and keep them short.

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Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 26,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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