Backstory story

On October 31, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …how do you know where to put those important backstories, the ones that are pivotal to a character? Is there any way to know, or do you just put it where it seems “right”?
There are lots of ways and places and times to work in a backstory, and I think where it seems right is a good guide.

You can do it in dialogue. For example, Elizabeth and Pamela are sleeping over at Marianne’s house. They’re in their pajamas in Marianne’s room. They’ve been friends since they were in kindergarten. Pamela starts a conversation about the first time she was in this bedroom. Others chime in with their early memories. These reveal their backstories.

Or Elizabeth, Pamela and Marianne are marching against the umbertis, enormous intelligent crabs that have invaded their homeland. The soldiers have a long way to go, and they pass the time talking about memories of home, their backstories.

Or you can do the same in thought. Pamela is the POV character. At the sleepover she thinks about her friendship with the two girls. She’s felt close to Marianne since the beginning, but her relationship with Elizabeth has had ups and downs. She can obsess over details of their run-ins. Or she can think about her own home, where she’s never invited the others to sleep over. Or, on the march against the umbertis she can think about her fellow soldiers or she can think about her mother’s teachings on warfare.

Or in narration. An omniscient narrator can chronicle the sleepover or the foot soldiers’ advance. The narrator can directly provide background for each girl.

The danger with backstory, which I suspect writeforfun is worrying about, is interrupting the flow of the story. For backstory to work, in most cases anyway, the front story needs to be underway. The reader has to care about the character with the backstory and the ongoing action of the story. Again in most cases, backstory will fit best in, say, the first third of the novel. Much later than that the reader is likely to have come to his own conclusions and backstory may just annoy. And at the end of a book backstory may feel too convenient, like a deus ex machina arrived to save the day or at least to explain it.

Let’s take the case of the umbertis. The reader has watched with Marianne as a crab’s purple pincer cruelly pinches her little brother Patrick and pulls him away. Another crab’s beady metallic eyes scan Marianne’s family’s living room, where she is crouched in horror behind a couch. Patrick’s screams are heard from the hallway. This is not the time for backstory about how much Marianne loves her brother or how much he annoys her. Unless–

Unless this interrupted action is going to be a motif in the story. Whenever things get exciting, the narrator switches to something else, which could be backstory. The reader groans while smiling, knowing that the main storyline will continue later. This is a way of creating distance and making the reader aware that he’s reading, reading the work of a very clever author. I’ve enjoyed books like this. I think the crime novelists Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake (high school and above) have written this kind of thing, although I can’t think of a particular title.

However, in this sort of story, even if it’s really well done, sometimes I will gnash my teeth and thumb ahead to where the action resumes. Then, after I’ve read the continuing crab drama, I may be reluctant to go back to the intervening pages. If I don’t, I may lose the thread of the story and I may abandon the book entirely. So there’s a risk. In general, quiet moments are best for backstory.

When I wrote the early drafts of Fairest, writing in omniscient third-person POV (I switched to first person later), I put in backstory for Queen Ivi. I included several scenes between her and Skulni, the creature in the mirror, and one between her, her mother, and her brother (who didn’t make the final cut). The scenes and backstory explained Ivi’s behavior. But third person didn’t work and most of the backstory had to go. I miss these scenes. They deepened Ivi’s character for me. But they weren’t necessary, and they gunked up the story. The reader accepts Ivi without the explanations.

What I’m saying is, consider if you need the backstory at all. You may need it for yourself, to understand why your character behaves as she does and to figure out what she’ll do in future situations, but the reader may not. Take the sleepover example. Let’s say Elizabeth makes fun of Marianne’s pajamas, which are cotton with a print of climbing vines that Elizabeth calls poison ivy. And Elizabeth keeps complaining that she isn’t going to be able to sleep because of Pamela’s snoring. I don’t think the reader needs to know that Elizabeth’s mother is hypercritical and her father is uninvolved in family life. The reader takes Elizabeth as he finds her. He’ll also be watching Elizabeth’s and Pamela’s response to her. If they treat her with understanding he’s going to suspect they understand her or that she has virtues he hasn’t experienced yet.

I’ve been watching the HBO series Girls, which is definitely without a doubt for adults. One of the girls, I don’t have the names down yet, the one with the British accent, is so far unfailingly unkind to her friends. I can’t figure out why they like her, and no amount of backstory would condone her bad behavior for me.

And lets go back to Elizabeth and her judgmental mother and disengaged father. Well, plenty of people have terrible parents and they rise above them. The moral is: Be judicious with your backstories. You can put them in (you may need to) in early drafts but try your story without them as you revise.

If the backstory is important and you’re sure you don’t want to cut it, consider telling it in forward time. Start the tale at an earlier moment. In Fairest again, I could have begun the book with Aza’s arrival at Ontio castle and slipped her earlier life in through flashbacks and thoughts and dialogue, but that would have been tricky and it might have given the book a jumpy quality I didn’t want. Same thing has happened to me with other books. I start somewhere and then I move the beginning back and back and back. You can too.

Here are four prompts:

∙    Write from the POV of the umberti crab who kidnapped Marianne’s brother and work in the backstory of these intelligent creatures. Do they come from outer space or are they mutations of ordinary crabs? Why do they hate humans?

∙    Invent a backstory for each of the sleepover girls. Telling the sleepover in the voice of an omniscient narrator, insert each backstory through thoughts, narration, and dialogue. Cause an argument among the three and have the backstory come into play.

∙    In the crab story, invent a backstory for Pamela and include it in the marching scene. After the army reaches the crabs, Pamela and a crab face off in hand-to-claw combat. Have Pamela’s backstory influence her fighting.

∙    Ina is a writer. Whenever she meets people she makes up their backstories. Her boyfriend brings her to dinner at his parents’ house. She’s meeting his family for the first time, and she engages in her pastime. Write the scene and make the imagined backstories get her into trouble.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. One big advantage to homeschooling, you can call library's and mystify whoever picks up by saying that you are eleven and going into seventh grade. Even though this is impossible because I would be at school… Gail I signed up for your class!

  2. Gail – thank you so much for answering my question! That helps TREMENDOUSLY! For some reason, I've always had a hard time with this topic. I think I get too involved in my characters:) Very helpful.

    Everyone else – what do you know; I'm homeschooled, too (I'm a junior and I've been homeschooled all my life)! I never would have guessed that there were so many of us on here! It is nice, though, I agree. Anyone else on here homeschooled?

  3. Weird… I'm a homeschooler, too!

    This post reminded me of the whole "show don't tell" thing. So rather than telling the readers: "Marianne loved her brother," or even going into a backstory that explains why she loves him, you show the readers through her actions. I think it would be kind of obvious that Marianne loves her brother just by saying something like it was painful for her to hear his screams as the monster attacked him.

    By the way, I was SUPER happy to find this blog. I'm a huge fan of your books! I think I've read Ella Enchanted about 12 times. (Small exaggeration.) And I'm learning a lot by reading the posts! 🙂

  4. Haha, I'm a homeschooler in 9th grade too!! (And never been to public school, which sometimes makes it hard to write about school when I've never been there…)
    One trouble I have with backstory is I've invented all this story for my characters, why they came to be this way, whatever, in a separate document– sort of like world-building, but character-building. And since I know all this convenient information, I tend to forget that the reader doesn't, and therefore is EXTREMELY confused. For example, it makes perfect sense to me why Jack has an acute fear of the color brown (an unfortunate incident in 3rd grade involving a beard and a stick of margarine), but the reader is like "what?". Does anyone else have this problem?

    • Wow there are a lot of homeschoolers! I've never been to public school either and so most of my characters I write are homeschooled just because I have no clue what public or private school is like.
      I have that problem too! I know every little thing about my characters and am always referencing my vast store of knowledge when I realize that no one who reads this will have any clue what I'm talking about. It helps to list all the information that I've given out and see if the list is missing anything crucial that the reader has to know. 🙂

  5. Two from the website:

    While you said that back stories didn't make much sense, I was recently reading 'The Last Hunt', by Bruce Covile, and in it, the characters aren't all together until a few chapters till the end, where they all have to congregate at a special tree. There, a big chunk of the intertwined, revealed slowly as chapters go on backstory is revealed just because a character tells everyone the story, and it worked well, actually.
    Lavinia Swire – City: – State: – Country:

    Hi Miss Gail! I read your blog loyally and have always wanted to post some comments. I don't have a blog (yet) so I was wondering, could you post this for me?

    First of all, I'm a homeschooler too! I love it when I surprise adults with that little fact.

    I also wanted to ask a question, both of them are semi-related to cliches. A scene in my book closely mimics a scene in a movie. One of my MCs can cry healing tears, I was planning on having her save her friend. But when I was telling my writing buddy about it, she said, "That sounds like (that movie)!" It's a little depressing when you think you had an original idea but it turns out it's already been used!

    Also, one of my villains used to be good friends with my MC. Superhero movies tend to use that, 'good friend turns to villain' scenario.

    Basically, is it okay to have that crying/healing scene, and the best friend/ turned villain thing? Even though it might be perceived as copying?

    Any suggestions or tips are valued and desired! (Sorry this comment is so long!)


    ~ Cora IvyEye

    P.S. I LOVED your latest post about backstory!
    Cora IvyEye

  6. @Cora IvyEye, sounds a lot like the movie Tangled. Even villain/best friend part is sort of like that– only it's a villain (Flynn Rider) who becomes the best friend/love interest. The best friend/villain is sort of cliched, but so many writers use it it'd be okay, I think. Percy Jackson is one series where the best friend becomes the villain (sort of).

    • There's nothing new under the sun. Stories are all repeats of each other and no one has copyrighted the best friend becoming a villain thing, so I think you're fine! 😀

  7. About "backstories being just plain stories"… I just pulled out an old YA novel for revision. A while back, I'd turned a cut scene into a short story. I know authors often turn previously-published short stories into novels and so on, but would it cause problems for the book later if I were to try to sell the story now? Thanks!

  8. carpelibris, another example is that Roald Dahl originally wrote the BFG into Danny Champion of the World as a bedtime story, a few years later the BFG got his own novel. Oh and Frances Hodgson Burrnet wrote Sarah Crew before a Little Princess.

  9. This is random and completely unrelated to this blog post, but please bare with me. I am an 18 year old British student preparing to head off to uni next year, and have recently bought a kindle to fill up with my favourite books as I wont have room for my enormous collection in my itsy bitsy room. Therefore, I was devastated to find that your books are not available in an ebook format (me when I found out -> D:) I have adored your books ever since my Mum bought me Ella Enchanted in 2001, and feel in some ways that they have shaped the person that I am today because I have spent so much of my childhood reading them. I would love to know whether there are any plans to release your works on kindle.
    One of your biggest fans- Kay x

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