Rarely does a good story-teller start chapter one on the day of the character’s birth and follow her chronologically through her childhood and life. Such a book would end up WAY too long. And we’d likely either fall asleep with boredom or toss the book aside and say, “Who cares?”
Instead, most writers find the incident that pushes our character into a series of dramatic and life-changing challenges. We want to plunge our reader into the story at a gripping point where they can say, “I care a whole lot!”
But what about all of the events that happen before the start of our stories? What do we do with all of it? How much do we include? And when?
Backstory is writer lingo for character history and story events that happen BEFORE the point our book starts. In other words, it’s everything that happened in the past that shaped our character’s personality and motivations into what they are when the book opens.
Multi-published author Kaye Dacus, out of curiosity asked me how I handle backstory: “How much do you like to know about your characters' backstories (and other story details) before you start that first chapter?”
Since I’m currently deeply immersed in the writing of my third contracted book, Kaye’s question is at the forefront of my mind. I’ll take a shot at answering the question. But please realize my process is just that, mine. We all have to land upon a system that works for our voice and style.
HOW MUCH backstory should writers know before starting chapter one?
My personal opinion: The more we know about our main characters (MCs), the better.
Why? When I get to know my MCs intimately before I start the story, then right from page one I’m able to jump into their characters and portray them uniquely and deeply.
I liken myself to an actor. Any actor can play their parts more authentically when they learn as much as they can about the tics, personality, and past of their characters. I use an extensive character worksheet. (I’ve made it available for free, so you’re welcome to print it out and use it for personal purposes.)
However . . . even though I strive to know all I can about my MCs before I start writing, I also give my characters the space to reveal more about themselves to me as the story progresses. Sometimes this kind of “revealing” will require me to go back during my editing and tweak the earlier chapters. For example in my current WIP, my hero didn’t reveal his expert knife-wielding ability to me until Chapter 4. Eventually, I’ll go back through the first few chapters to make sure I hint at this trait.
WHAT backstory should we include in the book?
My personal opinion: We usually need a lot less than we think we do.
Why? There’s very little backstory readers need to know to enjoy the story. I aspire to the icebergphilosophy. As an author I know the enormity of the past history and motivations. But it’s all under the water, the foundation and driving force of the story, but completely out of view of the reader. All they see is the very tip of the iceberg that floats on the surface.
If you’ve seen the movie Despicable Me, you’ll recall that we never learn the backstory of the three orphan girls that the evil Gru adopts. We don’t know how the trio came to be at the orphanage or what happened to their parents. It didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the story (especially for my junior high-aged kids who love slap-stick humor).
However . . . we don’t want to leave our readers feeling confused from a lack of information. When I add in backstory, I ask myself a couple questions: Does the information add to the plot? Will it help move the story along somehow? If not, then why am I putting it in?
WHEN should we reveal backstory?
My personal opinion: We should reveal very little in the first chapter and then weave it in carefully and gradually through the rest of the book.
Why? Readers want to jump into the present story, not the past (that’s often why prologues are unpopular). We want to draw readers into the current problem and resulting conflicts. Of course the past will have shaped MC’s goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC). But part of the fun of reading is discovering those GMCs as the story unfolds in tiny drops and small splashes (versus all in one dump).
However . . . if we wait too long to reveal past life-shaping events, we may alienate our readers from the character. We want our readers to know enough of the important past details so that they can empathize with our MCs.
Your turn!What’s your opinion? How much backstory is too much? What do you inlcude? And when do you add it in?