I’m Sandy Vaile, a motorbike-riding suspense-writer, who was a chef in a past life, which is why I like to think of backstory as a pungent spice. Today I’m going to explain why you should too.
What is backstory?
You’ll read many different definitions on the internet, but for my purposes, I like to define it as:
Anything that happened to a character or place before this story started, which provides context to the story.
The important aspect is context. It’s not enough to throw a heap of history in as filling, no matter how fascinating it may be. It must be relevant to the story. It’s also the baseline from which you can show the all-important change in your character by the end of the story. Backstory is a robust yet understated tool. It’s vital to help show what makes a character
Backstory is a robust yet understated tool. It’s vital to help show what makes a character tick, and yet can totally distract the reader if not finessed into the main story. Backstory is the foundation of realistic reactions to events, and adds layers to make characters three-dimensional, by revealing where personality, morals, hopes and fears originated.
Why a pungent spice?
To me, backstory is like a flavor you can’t quite pick lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavor, but it’s intangible and fleeting. It’s a vital ingredient that you need to infuse through all the layers of your story, without sacrificing other flavors (like pace or suspense). I firmly believe that in 90% of situations, it should be added in a quantity befitting a jalapeno
I firmly believe that in 90% of situations, it should be added in a quantity befitting a jalapeno chili that can set your mouth on fire. You don’t need to be able to see chunks of chilies to appreciate the heat. What you need is subtlety of flavor.
The way backstory is delivered can mean the difference between the reader discovering information for herself ⎯ like selecting a favorite chocolate from the box menu ⎯ or being force-fed it like a boiled Brussels sprout. (Apologies to Brussels sprout lovers.)
Backstory is a part of character development, but always consider its relationship to the amount of page time a character has. For example, a main character needs much more backstory development and disclosure than a minor character.
I’m sure we all have a friend who loves to talk about themselves, and it takes superhuman willpower not to tune out after a while. Why? Because being told stories isn’t nearly as interesting as experiencing the action first hand. Hence why you need to thoroughly infuse backstory into your character’s daily life, thoughts and actions, in a way that makes the reader feel as thought they are experiencing the journey with the character.
By allowing the reader to actively discover how past events have affected a character, and feel her inner turmoil as she faces her worst fears, they can better appreciate the choices she makes and why. Now that’s a powerful spice!
For some reason, writers tend to forget the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra when they need to squeeze backstory in, and often end up with information dumps, which is the main reason backstory has an unfavorable reputation; and yet it is such a critical aspect of storytelling. Here are a few ways that you can work that important historical information in.
- Dialogue is an interactive way to reveal backstory, but make sure it doesn’t sound forced.
For example, don’t say things like:
“As you know, Bob, I used to be a rodeo clown.”
Instead, try something like:
Bob picked up a photo from the cupboard. “Don’t tell me; you are the entertainment for kid’s parties.”
Emily laughed. “Close. I was a rodeo clown until dad got sick last year.”
- Internal thoughts are like dialogue, but inside the character’s head: self-talk. She might think her way through a situation, relating it to a significant past event to justify her actions. It’s a great way to reveal information that other characters don’t know.
- Secondary characters can be a very useful to reveal backstory, especially if they ask questions, interfere, eavesdrop, or just lend a sympathetic ear. In one of my books, Detective Patterson discusses a case file over the phone with another policeman, thus gaining background that he couldn’t from the official report.
- Mirroring what happened in the past can be effective to make backstory relevant to what’s going on in the main story. You can use weather, location or situational similarities to build on themes, trigger a memory, and link the past and present. Here’s an example from my book, “Inheriting Fear”:
Then she grabbed the empty chip bucket and headed for the freezer.
There was a milk crate outside — Mya’s crate, the other staff called it — to prop the door open with. She flicked the light on and stepped inside. A shudder ran the length of her spine, but it wasn’t from the cold. Her heart rate increased and she wrapped her arms around her torso in a protective gesture. It was a stupid reaction, but the big metal room reminded her too much of the box Cockroach used to lock her in when she was a kid.
- Flashbacks are one of the few times you can get away with a large amount of backstory in one place. That is because you’re not just telling the reader information they need to know, but you’re transporting them back to another time and place to show them. This allows the reader to experience the event as though they are there, feeling, seeing, tasting, and hearing along with the character.
Remember to lead your reading into and out of the flashback, so they don’t get confused. Here’s an example from, “Combatting Fear”:
The nightmare had woken her last night, for the first time in ages.
Neve sat with her eyes closed, crisp country air whipping in the open car window, and Carlos sniggered beside her at something on his iPad.
“Would you shut that window? It’s making a drumming sound,” Mum complained.
Neve sighed and reached for the button, but the car lurched sideways. There was a squeal of tires, a careening of metal, and glass crunched. Then they were spinning, spinning, across the road, through a fence, into a paddock.
Neve stared right into the eyes of the woman in the other car, which was now wedged in her mum’s door. The woman frowned, as though she couldn’t understand how this happened. Her car stopped, but theirs kept rolling. It was so quiet, almost peaceful for a moment, until the car jolted. Neve’s head hit the back of her mum’s seat as a spray of water flew past the windows.
Precious seconds ticked past in slow motion. Water oozed through the door seals. Mum was lying down and the car was all buckled over the top of her. The car floated like a big broken boat. Muddy water gurgled over the lip of mum’s broken window.
And then Carlos screamed.
Water rushed in too fast. Faster than Neve’s frantic heart, and faster than her fingers could release Carlos’s seatbelt.
Only this time, the screaming face in the nightmare was Rowan’s.
I hope you’ve picked up some helpful tips to help you infuse backstory, and give it the respect that a critical ingredient in a recipe deserves. If you’d like to learn about more backstory delivery devices, discover when and how to reveal backstory for the best effect, and learn how use it to drive your main story, then join me on the 23rd October for the Treat Backstory Like a Pungent Spice, 4-week online workshop hosted by Savvy Authors.
Suspense with attitude at www.sandyvaile.com
Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body.
By day she writes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, by night she devises horrible things to do to fictional characters, and in her spare time she mentors aspiring writers through the Novelist’s Circle group, judges romance writing competitions, presents literary craft workshops, and writes articles for magazines and blogs.
Sandy’s books are available from Simon & Schuster US, and all good eBook retailers
How far would you go to save a child that wasn’t yours?
Mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, Neve Botticelli, leads a double life. At home with her paranoid father, she is a combat trained survivalist who lives off-the-grid.
When self-made billionaire, Micah Kincaid, storms into town in search of his four-year-old son, Rowan, he’s pushy, entitled, and stands for everything Neve despises.
But something far more sinister than a cheating estranged wife, is lurking in rural Turners Gully, and it has its sights set on little Rowan’s inheritance. It turns out there is one thing Micah and Neve can agree on, and that’s keeping Rowan safe.
As they work together to free Rowan, they glimpse beneath one another’s guises, and realise that falling in love could be even more dangerous than hunting deadly criminals.