Using Backstory Effectively

Sat Jul 02 2016

Last time I gave Six tips for constructing effective, interesting backstories for your characters.

This week I want to give some tips for using all the great stuff you came up with, because there are definitely some right ways and some very, very wrong ways for incorporating backstory into a novel. Done right, readers will be delighted to learn how your characters came to be the people they are. Do it wrong, and you'll kill your story's pacing and remove a reader's prime motivation for reading.

When in doubt, leave it out

This has to be the first rule in any set of rules about using backstory. I cannot tell you how many manuscripts I have seen, by how many clients, marred by the inclusion of backstory that I didn't need, didn't want, and couldn't bring myself to care about.

Readers don't need the history of everybody in your story. The more minor the character, the more normal their role, the less we need to know how they got that way.

The cop that writes your protagonist a speeding ticket and makes him late for the wedding: do I care about his drinking problem? Do I care about his failing marriage? Do I care that he got busted down from detective to traffic detail because of his drinking? No. No I do not.

I care about whether your protagonist makes the wedding in time, and if not, whether him being late ruins the big day.

In general, the moment when you introduce a new character to a reader is when the reader will either accept or reject the plausibility of the character. If the character is basically normal, we'll just accept it and move on. There are cops in the world. They give people tickets. This is a thing that happens, and it needs no further justification. As a writer, you do not need to establish credibility for the cop. You don't need to prove to us that he's a believable policeman.

The policeman's backstory is nothing but a distraction from what readers actually care about. It's noise in our data. Leave it out.

Use backstory to raise questions

Or rather, use the promise of backstory to raise questions.

I didn't care about the policeman's backstory because ultimately he's just a plot device. But what about the protagonist's fiancée? She's important to the story, so you bet I care about her backstory. Especially if there is something notable about her.

Well, like what? Let's say she is prone to panic attacks. As a writer, you'll need to create some backstory for that. Why does she have them? Did something happen to her in the past? Did she suffer a traumatic incident that led to this? Does she have a neurotransmitter imbalance? Create a backstory that fits with last week's guidelines: something that fits what the story demands and addresses the character's wound.

Now use the promise of revealing this backstory as a way to incite the reader's curiosity.

First, show us a panic attack somewhere early in the story, just so we know she has them. This is how you let us know that there's something notable about her. That might be enough to make some readers curious as to why she has these attacks. But other readers might take it like they did with the policeman: something they just accept without question.

Second, to ensure that everybody is prompted to be curious about the backstory, drop a hint that there is an explanation without actually providing the explanation. You might give us a scene where the fiancée confides to a friend:

"It's just so frustrating! I never used to have these panic attacks. But now— I never know when they might happen. They ruin everything!"

That's enough. Just that one sentence, "I never used to have these panic attacks," will plant the seed of curiosity in the reader's mind because of the implied "but then such-and-such happened." Let that seed grow to propel your reader through the pages.

Curiosity is a powerful tool in the writer's arsenal. It is the central reason why readers continue to turn pages: we're curious about what'll happen next, and the only way we can find out is to keep reading. As writers, we want our readers to keep reading, and thus anything we can do to generate curiosity is a win.

Use backstory elements to create conflicts

Once you've got the reader wondering why she has panic attacks, heighten the drama by creating a conflict around her attacks.

We know there's a wedding coming. We know the groom ends up being late because he was speeding to get there early. We know she gets panic attacks.

So maybe it makes an awful lot of sense that him being late might trigger a panic attack for her. She's in the back room with her bridesmaids helping her into her dress, applying her make-up, et cetera, when somebody says "hey, isn't Daniel supposed to be here by now?"

Next thing you know she's in a full-on panic and won't leave the room because she's afraid he's not going to show and she can't face the humiliation of being left at the altar. And even once he does show, now she's all flustered and her makeup is probably messed up and has to be redone and the pastor has another wedding to officiate in an hour and the wedding train is way off the rails.

Bam. Conflict. Now you've got readers dying to know how it all turns out. Can she pull it together? What if Daniel breaks tradition by going into the back room to see if he can help reassure her? Would that do it? Maybe it does, and she can walk down the aisle with both her father and her groom, throwing tradition completely to the wind. That might make for a really nice scene.

The point is, look for ways to put characters' backstory elements in conflict with the story's outer plot elements. Put her panic attack in conflict with the expectations people have for how she's "supposed" to act as a bride. Just remember, such conflicts only work when they have credible emotional stakes attached to them. Otherwise, they'll fall flat.

Support backstory elements early

I particularly want to stress this one, because getting it wrong sabotages the power of the very elements you've worked so hard to create backstory for.

In our example, it's no good to let the bride's first panic attack of the story come right there in the wedding scene. That's too late. It'll feel artificial, like something you invented on the spot to create drama in an otherwise flat wedding scene.

This facet of her personality has to be established early on, in prior scenes, for two reasons. One, so that it feels organic to the scene rather than thrown in ad-hoc. Two, so readers can anticipate it.

If we know she gets panic attacks, then at the very moment when Daniel gets pulled over by the cop, readers might already find themselves thinking "oh crap, he's going to be late and she's going to panic!"

Do we know for sure that'll happen? No. We don't. In fact, we can foresee many possibilities. Maybe he'll make it on time. Maybe Daniel will prevail upon the cop to give him an official police escort for the rest of the drive. Or even if he's late, maybe this time she won't panic.

However, we don't know which possibility will actually happen until we read it. That's called "foreshadowing," and while we won't be surprised when her panic attack arrives, it will come as the answer to something we were curious about. The whole point of foreshadowing is to create curiosity about whether something we can foresee will actually happen.

But if we aren't aware of her panic attacks ahead of time, none of that can happen. You lose the foreshadowing because we lose our ability to have that "oh crap!" moment and subsequently be curious about which of the many possibilities may occur.

Don't reveal the backstory too early

The previous three guidelines have been about using character elements in various ways to support the backstory behind those elements. "When in doubt, leave it out" tells you which backstory not to include at all.

But none of that tells you when and where to actually put the useful backstory in.

With the other rules in mind, though, that answer becomes clear: include backstory when that information comes as an anticipated solution to some mystery we've been wondering over.

Anticipation is the key. Anticipation grows stronger with time, and next to including irrelevant backstory the most common error I see in clients' writing is revealing backstory too soon. Before readers have stewed a good long while in their curiosity about it.

The worst way to ruin some good backstory is to deploy it before readers are curious about it.

I see this all the time. Writers' thinking usually runs along the lines of "oh, gee, I've just saddled my character with panic attacks. I guess I'd better explain about that as soon as possible so readers know what's going on."

Next thing you know, the story opens with a backstory prologue about the time her mother was late to pick her up at the airport when she was a kid, and she spent three hours alone at the baggage claim warding off creepy guys while worrying that her mom had been killed in a car accident or something, until she was so worked-up that airport security had to drag her away.

Well, first off, we're not stupid. We'll understand what's going on even if you don't explain right away.

Worse, though, now we're not at all curious about her panic attacks. How can we be, when you've answered all our questions before we've had the chance to ask them? We're denied the ability to feel any juicy anticipation for that information. Just like with the wrong way to use flashbacks, deploying backstory before introducing the elements it explains is like telling the punchline of a joke first.

The other common way to ruin good backstory is to deploy it immediately after the first instance of whatever it relates to. In our example, this would be showing the character having a panic attack early in the story, and then immediately cutting to some exposition or a flashback that explains it. The core problem is the same: you deny readers the chance to develop their curiosity over time.

The true purpose of backstory

Those two mistakes reveal what backstory is really for: It's for satisfying readers' well-developed curiosity.

It's not for preventing curiosity from ever forming.

It's not for murdering curiosity at the very moment of its genesis.

It is for providing readers a moment of deep satisfaction when we learn the answer to something we've been wondering about for a long time.

So when do you reveal backstory? As late as you can get away with.