A recent discussion topic with my writing critique group was backstory – what happened before the current story began to make the story. We debated when it’s needed, how it’s woven into the story and what pitfalls to avoid. It led me to examine posthumously how I inserted backstory into my Transient City/Rogue Town duology. My comments below apply mainly to novel-length work. Short stories are a different breed. In the short form, one begins ‘as late as possible’ and provides only what is absolutely necessary in the way of backstory.
First, the need. Background information about character and physical and social setting enhances the reader’s appreciation for motivation and the obstacles blocking the characters’ goals. Understanding motivation can increase a reader’s dopamine level, many readers seek personal identification with the characters presented. Additional layers of world and persona-building give depth in novel-length works. The incremental ‘reveals’ judiciously sprinkled through the tale keep the reader’s interest and if they can share in assembling the parts, the act of participation rewards through that old dopamine rush. If done well.
If done well. The techniques vary from smooth integration in dialog to clumsy exposition. Verbal exchanges can ‘worm’ information from a character who has their own reason for reluctance. Withholding key data could be an embarrassing or shaming experience. It could be for safety reasons. Doling it out piecemeal as the plot’s stakes rise adds tension, the key element in moving all fiction forward.
Sensory or emotional triggers can produce flashbacks which function to explain why the character reacts as he/she does. A place, a word, a person from the past can cause a sudden recollection. Dreams and hallucinations can offer similar opportunity for the author to slip in crucial information.
Other less subtle techniques include news items garnering the protagonist’s attention. Journal or logbook entries break up the narrative flow but handled with care, can still evoke genuine emotions in character and reader. Larger chunks of exposition giving history can slow the pace and are to be used with care, if at all.
Victor Stromboli, my lead character in Transient City, has a gift in the form of perfect memory. The talent allows him to eke out an existence as a crime-scene ‘witness’ for the City’s police. The procedure involved in locking down the memories is an ordeal for Victor every time. I wanted the reader to question how Victor came by his talent in the first place. Before the book ends, I outline an incident from his early life which not only reveals his discovery of the ability but also served to elaborate on his socio-economic position in Transient’s hierarchy. One event, multiple functions.
Transient City is Victor’s story. It’s sequel, Rogue Town, is Shoes’ story. Shoes is a secondary but enigmatic, character in the first book. Rogue Town gave me the chance to background her past. This time I dovetailed another character’s previous career into Shoes’ past trauma. It provided more information for both characters, a nasty bit of ‘City’ history and created mistrust (i.e. tension) for Shoes to be working with that character.
If you want to see if I’ve succeeded, read this blog no further until you acquire the books.
You’re back? Excellent. I hope you enjoyed the novels. You will have noticed secondary character backstories were also woven in as part of TC’s history, for the City too is an important character.
A caution. One can get carried away with backstory. Background detail can be like research: you need it to write the story but it doesn’t all need to be in the final product.
From a writer’s viewpoint, backstory supplies one additional service. It can provide the inspiration for prequel stories or other tales contemporary with the source. A canon of Sherlock Holmes stories and scripts have been inspired by unpursued (by Conan Doyle) references littered through the original series. Asimov went backward in time as well as forward in his Foundation and Robot series, taking advantage of the rich background created for the initial novels.