Backstory, we don’t need no stinkin’ backstory

cropped-cropped-kanaga1.jpgHola, fellow authors:

I was just reading an article about where to start your novel or short story.  The blogger insists that beginning in a character’s childhood is both boring and unnecessary.  In fact, she suggests that readers don’t really need to know about your character’s growing up into the adults they will be.

I disagree.  I think that a character’s early background (childhood if not young adult) can be essential – if handled right.  Here, the blogger and I agree.  And, of course I would approve of backstory prologues, as that is precisely how I started the Volcano Lady series.  Introducing characters by way of their daily routines or calm-quiet childhoods would indeed be boring, but you’re not going to do that, are you!

Starting a novel, especially your first novel or the first of a new series, can be difficult.  We want to tell the reader everything they need to know in order to make the story full and complex.  That’s not a bad idea.  But, be warned, it can backfire.  Even the bestselling authors can make this mistake.  I love Dan Brown novels but I can say that I find them initially tedious.  Too slow.  Too full of details, that while I will need to know them later, can just make you feel schooled.  I stay with the book because I know Brown will deliver in the end.  By mid-book, you’ll be hooked and going with the ever increasing pace.  For an unknown author, this can be the kiss of death.  Brown has earned his reputation for delivering a powerful story, but you and me?  Not yet.

Backstory is one of the trickier things an author works with.  Have I mastered it?  Depends on your tastes, but I don’t think I bored anyone.  Some readers adore backstory and research; others, not so much.  Yet, it is necessary, isn’t it?  Think about the Indiana Jones movies: do you think the stories would have worked if you didn’t know that Professor Jones had a difficult relationship with Marian or that he and his father didn’t quite get along?  The filmmakers brilliantly handle both backstories very differently.  For the story of Marian and Jones, you get little comments and eye glances, hinting that Jones is not comfortable meeting Marian after all those years.  Her reaction tells the rest of the story once they are in the same room.  In the third movie, you get the “early years” approach with young Jones recovering an historic item only to have his father’s indifference, obsession with the Holy Grail, and misunderstanding of his own son’s nature betray him into failure.  Two different approaches with two essential elements:

  1. Both stories show, they don’t tell.  Oh, I know, you hear it over and over again: show, don’t tell.  There are definitely times to tell, but those times are generally brief.  Showing is very effective because you can drag your reader along, letting them pick up clues for themselves along the way.  Isn’t that why we read a novel and not the Wikipedia or Cliff Notes of the story?
  2. Conflict and Drama.  We all have had our childhoods, and for the most part, they were probably pretty average – even a little dull.  In reality, that is a good thing, yes?  However, your book has to grab someone’s attention from sentence one – thus anything you present in your first chapter has to have purpose, conflict, drama, and flow.  It has to drag you in.  Purpose is extremely important as it needs to explain why the character is who they are – what is their obsession?  What makes them tick?

In the case of my first novel, A Fearful Storm Gathering, I break with the idea that we don’t want to read about a character’s younger years – that we want to see them in the book’s immediate here and now, doing what they will be doing for the rest of the story.  I chose to begin with a volcanic eruption and its impact on a child.  Lettie Gantry, my geologist and protagonist, witnessing an erupting volcano and the destruction it caused gave her the focus for the rest of her adult life: predicting volcanoes.  I could have simply said this or mentioned it later.  However, I thought that wouldn’t help the reader to like her early on, to see who she was and why she is the way she is, and to understand what it would take to cause a Victorian woman to toss all convention aside in reaching her goals.  I wanted to show you.  To put you in her shoes.  To see how horrible an eruption could be and how it would force a child into making a lifelong decision.  Drama, conflict, and danger.  Eruptions are fast, terrifying, and the reader gets to be there for her defining moment, scared right alongside her.

Whatever way you plan to give the reader a backstory, be sure it is dynamic, dramatic, and full of pertinent conflict.  Show them why your characters are the way they are.  Otherwise, they are empty and incomplete.  Readers won’t care about someone if there is nothing for them to link to or to like.  And if your readers don’t care about your characters, then they won’t finish your book.  Plain and simple.

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