Death by Backstory

Sat Dec 03 2016

Backstory. Sometimes I don't know whether to describe backstory as a magical spice that can be so delicious readers will consume not just one book but your whole series, or as stale, unstable dynamite just waiting to blow your novel to smithereens if you look at it funny.

As writers, we love to create characters with deep, fraught, tragedy-filled backstories, don't we? Load them up with pathos so readers can't help but feel for them.

The thing is, both how and when you reveal this information makes a huge difference in whether readers engage with your novel.

The Past Influences the Present

Everything happening now is the product of what happened before, both in the world and in your novel. And yet, the past is not visible to those who weren't there to see it.

This puts your reader and your characters in a different position: they were there to see the events that happened before your novel's opening scene, but readers weren't. Unless we're told about them, we readers can only speculate about what past events must have influenced the situations we're watching unfold.

As writers, we're keenly aware of this difference in what characters and readers can see. We know readers aren't going to really understand what's going on until they know that backstory. We sense that readers are going to be curious about it.

However, judging from what I see in my clients' work, that drives a lot of writers absolutely crazy. They simply cannot bear for the reader not to understand everything right away. They sense the reader's curiosity looming, and succumb to an irresistible urge to explain. To uncover the hidden past.

Maybe they do it by jumping to a flashback as soon as some moment comes along that depends on a particular past event. Maybe they do it by contriving a dialogue sequence in which one character tells another about that past event. Maybe they do it as a pure infodump, relating the information to the reader directly through an omniscient narrator's perspective.

However they do it, the effect is the same: the reader is no longer curious about the backstory. The writer has sated that irresistible urge.

A Little Curiosity is a Good Thing

The writer has made themselves feel good--or at least relieved--by explaining, but in doing so they've killed the reader's curiosity about that portion of the story.

These writers don't understand that curiosity is the fuel that propels readers through a story. When you're reading an engaging novel, what is it that keeps you turning pages at all?

Those are all expressions of curiosity. The only reason to keep going in a story is because you have questions for which you don't have answers. The more such questions you have, the more reason you have to keep reading.

So yes. A little curiosity is a good thing. And a lot is even better.

Hint First, Reveal Later

The difference between building up a reader's curiosity and spoiling it is this: First you hint that there's something to be known. Only later, after readers have had a long time to stew in their curiosity about it, do you ultimately reveal the Shocking Truth about the past.

An example is probably in order. Last time we revisited our Sonja story, we left off with Sonja unwrapping the package the Regent had hired her to deliver, after someone tried to kill her for it:

Untied, she peeled back the oilskin, revealing a layer of waxed paper which crinkled softly as she unwrapped it. There in the parcel's heart was a velvet pouch, its drawstring pulled tight. She opened it, and a long, heavy key fell into her hand.

A mysterious key! Well, that's certainly a source of curiosity. Now, as a writer, I know what lock that key fits. I know whose key it is, what that key is guarding, why they felt whatever it is needs to be guarded, et cetera. And I know that readers know none of it.

If I'm a neurotic writer who can't stand to leave a question unanswered, I'm going to jump straight to a flashback, some dialogue, or an infodump to reveal it.

But if I'm a more savvy writer, I'll recognize that this situation is an opportunity for me to build up my reader's curiosity. To make sure readers are properly baited by hinting at the past:

Sonja hefted the key, feeling the weight of it in her palm. The cold solidity of the metal. The Regent sent the parcel, so it had to have something to do with him. What do I actually know about him? she pondered.

There were plenty of rumors about the Regent. Whispers murmured from lip to ear. Most she dismissed as foolishness. But some...

A heavy key for a heavy lock. A heavy lock, probably set into a heavy door. She considered they key's shape, the metal crenellations so carefully shaped and filed by some nameless locksmith. That woman. The one at court, years ago now. The one who showed up so suddenly, and had vanished just as suddenly later. What if the lock wasn't set into a door at all?

Or the key could be for something else entirely. Perhaps it only opened a strongbox somewhere. But Sonja suspected otherwise. She closed her fist around the metal shaft. And if I'm right, she thought, I know who to ask.

Hints. Suspicions. But no true explanations. I'm not saying what the key actually goes to, or even whether Sonja's conjectures are accurate. I'm only giving the reader some glimpses of the past, from which they can begin to speculate.

Because that's the fun part for readers, isn't it? Speculating on what you think is going on, and then reading on to find out if you're correct? Because of all those reasons to keep reading I listed above, perhaps none is more powerful than to suspect something and wonder "am I right?"

Serve the Reader, not Yourself

Nobody's going to stop you from explaining everything up-front. If you simply cannot abide an unanswered question, well, it's your manuscript. Do what you want.

But in my view, soothing your own anxiety over the unanswered question is lazy writing. It serves your needs, but does your readers a disservice. It robs them of their chance to be wonderfully, deliciously curious about your story.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's the life-blood of a novel.