Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dreaded and despised: the uses of backstory

The renowned literary agent, Donald Maass, advises to push backstory to the 100th page of a novel. Most writing manuals agree that that no backstory should find its way into a first chapter, otherwise the story would slow down and the reader will be bored. I have to disagree. As a voracious reader, I seldom throw away a novel even if the first chapter is dull, and backstory in an introductory chapter never puts me off my reading. I must be odd, but I need to know a little about the past and family history of the main characters.

Backstory means to interrupt a narrative in the present in order to go into the past. Whether via flashback, recollection or dialogue, backstory explains why a character is in such a place at a particular moment. Some people don´t know how to do it, others like the late Jacqueline Susann were masters in its usage. However, contemporary consensus says that opening chapters should be grounded strictly in the present.

This rule tends to confuse novice writers who bend over backwards in order to avoid the dreaded pitfall. What they don´t understand is that unless you are beginning with the protagonist’s birth (a la David Copperfield) a little backstory will always creep into those first pages. Even a plot-driven novel will require some characterization, and you have to give characters a little background in order to make them appealing.

By the time I finished Twilight’s first chapter, I didn´t know about the vampires, good and evil, about to cross Bella’s path, but I knew I liked her, and that was due to the backstory that explained her relationship with her parents and why she was on her way to Forks.

Stephanie Meyer found the perfect way to artfully interweave the past into present events. As artfully as Margaret Mitchell introduces her heroine to the reader while subtly letting backstory infiltrate into that first paragraph.

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father”.

We are instantly interested in Scarlett, but we also care to know about these parents. Coming from such diverse backgrounds, what would bring them together? Does that misalliance affect Scarlett´s nature as well as her physical appearance?

In Jo Graham´s Black Ships, Gull does not start her story with her birth, but with her mother´s circumstances, who she was before and after Troy fell. The same happens in Jacqueline Carey´s Kushiel´s Dart, where Phedre goes to great lengths to tell us all about her pedigree, and her family´s lineage. In both cases, the heroines need the reader to understand their past and how it influences their personalities and lives.

Backstory could serve as a mood enhancer, and so even thrillers and adventure authors use it. Take for example Joseph Kanon´s The Good German that opens with the hero, Jake Geismar, in a flight to post-war Berlin. In that first chapter Jake, recalls his experiences during the war, then goes back further in time, reminiscing the days he spent in that city, covering the 1936 Olympics. That small dosage of backstory helps create a perfect setting and atmosphere for the somber tragedy that is about to unfold.

Of course we know better than to spill the beans in page one. Of course, we are conscious of the importance of withholding juicy tidbits till later, but there are ways in which backstory judiciously employed, could intensify the plot. For example, launching a tale with the past and letting it lead you to the present moment. In Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in Lian Hearn’s series, Tales of the Otori, Takeo describes, in the first two pages, his relationship with his mother and their life in the mountain village of Mino. On page three, he returns from the forest and finds his village destroyed and his family murdered. The previous introduction adds pathos to this scene and helps us bond with Takeo.

It could be done the other way around. Begin with the present and move into the past. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer winning novel, opens with a common lie that Sam Clay uses to explain the existence of his comic-book character, “The Escapist”. Then the story takes us to 1939 to discover The Escapist’s real genesis. It is a powerful strategic device that lures the reader into the story.

Reading fiction is an emotional experience. I agree that plenty of action keeps your adrenaline pumping and too much exposition makes you doze, but caring about characters from page one, wanting to know more about them, and learning about the circumstances that shaped them is a wonderful way to hook a reader, and backstory could just help you do that.
Is backstory an effective device, even before the 100th page? Do you remember examples where it improved the plot?


  1. I agree with you, Violante. Backstory is not only a very powerful way to fill the reader on the necessary details, but to also entice the reader along if they don't give too much away. I'd say there isn't much fiction written anymore that doesn't thread copious amounts of backstory into what they are writing. The past, in many cases, tends to grant the story even more forward momentum. Just don't overdo it. Don't give away too much before you need to. It's certainly a delicate balance to uphold.

    ♥ Mary Mary

  2. Bless you Sister! you are one fast reader! I wasn't even finished editing! Indeed, it´s all a question of balance.Hoever, I notice that Latin American and European writers are not as vigilant as American writers when it comes to backstory, and most of the time it works out beautifully.

  3. I love the 'Escapist' graphic! V- I've gotta say, one of the things I appreciated most about this post were the copious examples from previous works striking, as Mary Mary said, that delicate balance. The competition for a reader's attention is fierce these days and the burden of crafting both an empathetic character as well as a fast-paced narrative is perhaps weightier than it ever has been. A very timely topic.

  4. I think back story gives you the chance to learn more about your characters and to fall in love with them. I think it is all depends on the way the author presents it...

  5. When I first started writing I didn't know all the "terminology" for different things. I was doing everything by instinct (this instinct based on lots and lots of reading), just putting things in where they felt right, and only later after I started reading things online did I find out that the bits I'd sprinkled here and there were called "backstory". And there is some in my first chapter. And... I'm going to be positive here and say I don't THINK it detracts from the action! You're right. SOME backstory needs to be there in the beginning for things to make sense to the reader.

  6. If we read a lot of style manuals (and I love Donald Maass' how-to tomes) we can get confused. I agree wholeheartedly with your views and your examples. Certainly early in our novels we need readers to care for our characters and that is hard to do without sharing some backstory. Great post!

  7. Hi Violante, you make a great point here. In terms of my current MS, my earlier drafts started Chapter 1 smack-bang in the middle of the action, and I had a lot of feedback saying that the readers didn't know the MC and so were not that invested in what happened to her. Now I've started the MS in an earlier place, so readers can get to know the MC before things happen to her. I've had to weave some backstory in to give readers a feel for who my MC is, but you're right in saying that there's a right way and wrong way to do this - hopefully I'm close to finding the right way :)


  8. Dear Rachel M.
    We ALL start that way. I was on page 1023 of my first novel when Sister Lorena broke to me gently that publishers were not keen on long novels. “What about War and Peace” I moaned? It was a blow in the gut learning that if Tolstoy lived in the XXI century he would have trouble finding an agent. Being a Literature Major I was still in the land of Dickens and Jane Austen who followed no rules. Sadly, we should be taking Dan Brown and Dean Koontz as our literary models. Reading manuals put me in contact with terms such as “backstory” “exposition” and “POV” which I thought was a military acronym! I am very grateful to manuals because they make a lot of sense and are useful guidelines, but eventually a writer has to use her own judgment when it comes to certain things.

    Dear L’Aussie
    The reason I bring up current novels as example is to illustrate the point that contemporary agents are willing to bypass rules if the plot merits such sacrifice. So it´s all a matter of drafting (in a legible way) the best story you can think of.

    Dear Sharon and Rachel H.
    It´s all about characters, if you hate a protagonist he can live through the best adventures and won’t care whether he is eaten by dinosaurs or captured by Somali pirates. In my last novel, I play with time and backstory from the first line onwards. It´s my modest opinion that I managed to do it in an effective fashion. However, I am targeting a Spanish audience that is used to time-playing and have no quarrel with backstory. I recently read a historical novel (that shall remain nameless) that uses backstory n the most dreadful way. Set during the Spanish Civil War, the hero, an American fighting with the Lincoln Brigade, is going up the stairs at the Spanish War Ministry on his way to see a General. Every three steps, the author inserts sections drenched with backstory. The first deals with the hero´s background, next comes the reasons that made him join the International Brigades, then the author describes the General’s background! To make the narrative more convoluted, after each backstory paragraph, the author returns to the present and describes his hero leisurely climbing the stars. Honest I am not making this up!

    Huge thanks to all who read and bother comment our posts

  9. Violante touches on two very interesting issues:

    1. How much the "rules of publishing" have changed throughout the years.

    2. How differently international publishers (and audiences) view said rules.

    It's strange but in almost every non-american novel I've read lately there is head-hopping, multiple povs, exposition and backstory. Yet, they are very successful books worldwide--including their translations in the US (an example is Larsson's Millenium trilogy).

    Why do you all think the American Publishers have come up with these arbitrary rules? Do you think they make for better books?

  10. I think there are a couple of reasons why these rules exist. First off, in a flooded market, there at least has to be some way to weed out manuscripts. This doesn't necessarily mean they're picking the best ones, just the ones that keep things a little more on track. Secondly, I feel that a book reads more smoothly and is easier to jump into when we view it from only one or two POVs. That's probably why first person is so popular among writers. They know they have to keep it in that one person's head at all times. Does this make for a good read? Not necessarily. I've noted often times how much junk seems to get published. Self-publishing is a great road to have, but I think in many ways it's plagued the writing world with anyone and everyone throwing their work out there to be published. As I've always stated, I think there needs to be an overhaul of the whole industry. It's become this market just bursting at the seams with bad writing and writers who complain that their work is not being bought. If that's the case, then as a writer, you really need to go through every process in the critique process before self-publishing. Same goes for many of those other works getting published by traditional publishers. Everyone needs to take a step back and take what they're doing just a little more seriously.


  11. I am even more amazed by the comments you sisters are making, do you all have a degree in literature or something? How are you able to dissect the industry so well?

  12. Dear Joanna (and any others within the reach of my words)-

    Years ago when I first found out I was pregnant, I rushed to the bookstore to pick up a couple of tomes on the subject of pregnancy. It wasn't long before I was swimming (drowning?) in a sea of voices all telling me how I should be pregnant, stay pregnant and what I should do after the pregnancy was over. Not only that, but there were sundry titles tossing out warnings on everything that might possibly go wrong with both the pregnancy and the warm and fuzzy post-gestational result. I swore, then and there, not to read any of the books. Not a single one. And, lo and behold, my offspring and I are both alive and thriving.

    Sometimes, not always- but sometimes, instinct (and perhaps even common sense) suffers at the hands of too many sources of information, though hopefully not beyond redemption. In the end, it may all boil down to having a serviceable filter in place. It's not a bad idea to remember that if you have the intellect to desire to write in the first place- and the drive to be on this path, at all- that your own ideas on execution, style and simply penning something of substance are just as valid as the ones being trumpeted in the latest trade rag.

    Incidentally, my fortune cookie with lunch, today, read, 'A dream you have will come true.' Happy to share it with any takers.

    Keep on keepin' on, out there.

  13. Dear Joanna, I can only speak for myself and Sister Lorena, my first and best Beta Rader who has been with me almost every stage of this journey. We read every manual we could laid hands on; we read every article on the web, we followed agent´s blogs and sites. I joined a couple of writer´s forums. After five years, we became experts on the field, and it was then that we could see the contradictions and became myth busters.

  14. It depends, as it often does. I happen to believe you can do anything when writing, independent of what others may think. The backstory, like everything else should go where it feels natural to put at the time.

  15. That would be common sense, Amos, but what can novice writers do when flooded with rules that tell them backstory is a no-no?

  16. Interesting post. I have to disagree with that page 100 advice too.

    I'm drawn to characters when I know why they act the way they do. A good way to understand a character is to know their circumstances and where they're coming from.

    No, I don't want a whole page telling me who they are and what they've done, but a few subtle sentences can get the job done without slowing their story to a crawl.

  17. Have to say I don't think there's anything wrong with dribbling in bits of backstory from very early on - quite the reverse, I think alluding to things from the past can help hook the reader and make them interested in finding out more about your character. (So I agree with MaryMary's first comment)

    The main qualification I'd make (and this is what I think results in the blanket advice to beginner writers to avoid backstory) is that there not be huge slabs of backstory exposition, particularly not early on. If backstory is introduced in brief bits and pieces at pertinent times, and preferably as part of the ongoing action or as a direct result of something which is currently happening, then I think it works very well. And yes - often BEFORE page 100!

    Just to confuse matters, of course there are always exceptions to every supposed 'rule' in the literary world which still manange to make things work beautifully...

  18. I wish those who author manuals and articles on writing tips would tell us about the "exceptions" and how to do it right, instead on just handing us drastic rules "Thou shall not use backstory!!"
    Merry Christmas to all!


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