I’ve read a couple of novels lately that had really good stories that were ruined by buckets and buckets of backstory that were thrown on the reader right from the start. They had opening chapters that could have been completely cut out with nothing being lost from the story. Basically they had chapters that should have stayed in the author’s notebooks.
Twenty years ago I sat in a Creative Writing class that I still carry with me. The teacher showed us the beginning sequence to the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. His lesson was on foreshadowing (you find out who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, that it’s a full blown action adventure, that the bad guy will do anything to kill the good guy, and that Indiana is afraid of snakes) This part of the film can also be used as a lesson in backstory.
Quick description of the opening of the film…Indiana Jones has a fedora, leather jacket, leather bag, gun, and whip that he uses in many ways. He goes in a cave and narrowly gets through ancient traps to get an archeological treasure and get out. Bad guy laughs at him and takes the treasure, “Dr. Jones, again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” Indiana gets away in his friends plane that also has a large snake in it. “I hate snakes, Jacque, I hate em’”
As a viewer we don’t need to know where Indy got the whip or hat. He’s afraid of snakes. Is it going to change our enjoyment of the film if we knew that he once fell into a box full of snakes and since then has been terrified? Nope. Save that for the third movie.
In writing, a backstory is there more for the author than the reader. The author needs to know the why and how for whatever a character feels like or does. The reader just needs to know that it is what it is. For instance, if you look at the rest of my blog I am working on the backstory for a new suspense thriller. I can fill pages and pages with backstory that the reader doesn’t need to know for the story at hand, or I can put little stuff in here and there that tells you the same thing. I can write…
As Spencer lead the way into his back office his eyes barely noticed his culinary diploma framed on the wall.
…or I can write…
After high school Spencer went across the country to the Culinary Institute of Canada. For two years he slaved in their kitchens and classrooms, as well as a couple of restaurants around the area. Upon graduating he apprenticed at this restaurant and that restaurant. About six years ago he came to be the Head Chef at his father’s restaurant…blah blah blah onto the next Castle novel.
Backstory is there to enrich the actual story. A novel is just a scene in the character’s lives. You aren’t telling the whole thing. In my first snip it I didn’t even have to say Spencer was a chef at a restaurant, but I bet you were thinking it. It was his office and there was a culinary diploma, enough said. I have a main character whose mother disappeared – not important. Not for this story anyway. I may explore it later if the characters stick with me for another book or two, but for this story that I want to tell the reader is only going to know that Spencer and his sister Chrys are foster siblings. Other than that, the reader doesn’t need to know much more. Little bits and pieces thrown creatively into the story can tell wonders. Carefully put little bits of the backstory in and you can add a whole lot of colour to your story without making it feel like the reader just opened a stuffed closet and had a whole lot of crap fall out on top of him.
Don't let your backstory ruin the story you are trying to tell.