Guest blogger Heidi Croot
Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn on the page.
Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?
Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with backstory in a way that appeals to readers.
Decide What to Throw Out
Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma shapeshifted a character’s personality.
Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world works in fantasy or science fiction.
Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”
1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy
Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July, drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean something.
I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it came.
My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight. Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should have been important to her.
2. Save Your Cast-offs
Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment. For each, ask:
- Does the reader need to know this?
- How does this episode propel the main story forward?
- Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
- Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
- Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes nowhere?
- Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another character’s story?
Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the door: Private. I move beloved old outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may inspire their own narratives.
Threading So the Stitches Don’t Show
Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.
1. Wait for Thirst
Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.
What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.
What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.
Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.
2. Show Readers the Gap
But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or feel the related emotion.
Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?
My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees the envelope with the familiar handwriting.
Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory, they understand what she risks by opening that letter.
3. Animate Backstory with Scene
Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.
Showing is better.
Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to be—including its own chapter.
Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey does this splendidly in Sweetland when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.
Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.
4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory
Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.
Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.
I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical opportunity to muse on who was this man.
5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit
Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.
One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She
had written wrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.
In Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.
Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed in town.
What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.
Meet Heidi Croot
Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.