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Do you know the right way to use backstory?

Last time I gave Six tips for constructing effective, interesting backstories for your characters. I promised I’d follow that up with some how-to on using the great stuff you’ve invented in your novel.

It’s not always as simple as it seems. As I wrote last month, there are lots of rookie mistakes you can make with backstory, ones that undermine your story rather than support it. This does not mean that backstory is a waste of time. Here are three ways you can use backstory effectively:

Use it to raise questions. One of the problems I cited in my last article was that, when presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time, backstory can answer too many questions about your characters. It can destroy the mystery. A much better strategy is to use backstory to raise questions, rather than answer them. For example, in my last article I suggested that a fun backstory element might be that a character makes her own cheese at home. You could use that to raise questions in the reader’s mind—that is, to create compelling mystery about the character—by showing that she does this, but neglecting to explain why. After all, why would someone make their own cheese? It’s difficult, time-consuming, takes a lot of work and some special equipment, et cetera. Why not just buy a slab of cheddar at the grocery store? Mysteries keep readers moving forward, so if you can create some with careful use of your backstory, you win.

Use it to create conflicts. So now that we’ve got the reader wondering why our heroine makes her own cheese, let’s heighten the drama a bit by creating a conflict around this bit of backstory-driven behavior. Perhaps the heroine is a pediatrician. On her day off, she’s whipping up a fresh batch of curds, something that must be done with a fair amount of care and attention to detail: timing, temperature control, and so forth matter to how the cheese turns out. Right in the middle of all this, her cell phone rings. It’s a resident at her hospital, begging her to come in for a consult over something that is 95% likely to be nothing. Does the she tell the resident to make the diagnosis so she can get back to her cheese, or does she sigh and hop in the car knowing that when she gets home her curds will be ruined?

Look for ways to put your character’s backstory elements in conflict with your story’s outer plot elements. But note, this only works when it creates difficult choices for the character. In my last article, I suggested that the cheese making hobby is, in fact, very emotionally important to our hypothetical pediatrician. The situation is only dramatic because it forces her to choose between something that is personally important to her and something that is professionally important but that she knows is almost certainly a total waste of time. So look for those conflicts, but remember that the conflicts have to have credible emotional stakes attached to them, or they’ll fall flat.

Support it early. I particularly want to stress this one, because getting it wrong can ruin a whole book. Let us imagine that we would like an important plot point to hinge on our pediatrician’s familiarity with cheese making. Perhaps she uses her knowledge of cheese cultures (the particular bacteria and fungi involved) to make a difficult diagnosis, saving the life of an important politician’s child. That’s great. We’ve tied the backstory to the plot, and in doing so, give ourselves opportunities to connect the character’s inner journey with her outer journey.

This only works if we have spent the requisite effort ahead of time to demonstrate and support her cheese making skills. Imagine if we have not. Imagine that we have said not one word about cheese making prior to the diagnosis scene. It just wouldn’t work to have her swab a sample on a microscope slide, and immediately exclaim “My God! This child is infected with Penicillium Roqueforti, the mold that gives the rich taste of Roquefort cheese!” Not only is that horrible, infodump dialogue, but it’s a deus ex machina solution: we’ve given the reader no reason to believe that the good doctor should know this, and any trust the reader has in you to tell them a good story is wiped out.

However, if we have spent scenes and time earlier in the book establishing the cheese making hobby, connecting it emotionally to the character and putting it in dramatic conflict with the plot, then the reader is primed to say “oh, yeah, she’d totally know what that mold is.” Problem solved. Backstory is a great way to establish important skills or pieces of information that characters will need in order to overcome the plot’s obstacles, but only if you do a good job of showing them to the reader before they are necessary to the plot.

September 25, 2009 21:31 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, questions, mystery, conflict, deus ex machina, infodumps, inner journey, outer journey

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Posted by Terry Odell on July 04, 2010 20:49 UTC

As Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.” So yes, you have to set up the fact that your character is afraid of snakes, but you don’t have to explain it right away (it took a couple of movies before we saw why Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes, but it still worked in the first movie). Layering in those skill sets makes a better, more believable, read.

Posted by Marc Vun Kannon on September 09, 2010 12:00 UTC

The only problem I have with this is that the backstory plays right into the plot, and ruins any suspense. A technique I use is to have my backstory elements be similar to something in the front story but not the same. A direct connection is almost never the best connection, unless the element in the front story is very minor, or just one out of many such elements. The Roquefort mold may be the first clue in a series required to unravel a mystery. Maybe her expertise with cheeses lets her recognize before others do that there is something unusual about the behavior of this mold or bacteria, that sort of thing. Or feed backstory into front story by use of dream sequences (a personal favorite).

Marc Vun Kannon

Posted by e.lee on September 09, 2010 12:57 UTC

Backstory is used as padding- which is the more annoying use

Posted by Jason Black on September 09, 2010 19:28 UTC

@Mark Vun Kannon:

Let me clarify. At its core, backstory explains how/why a character has certain skills, knowledge, fears, et cetera. We all know that. The trick to really engaging the reader’s curiosity is:

  1. Show the skill/knowledge/fear/etc in action, but withhold the backstory. That is, show the doctor making cheese. Result: reader ponders “gee, I wonder why she does that?”

  2. Later, reveal the backstory in a way that connects the skill/knowledge/fear to something else in the story besides whatever plot point that thing might relate to. That is, reveal that the cheese making is related to the doctor’s feelings of loss for her mother. Result: reader has closure to that earlier pondering, and feels that he or she now understands the character better. This is true, but what is also true is that the reader now absolutely believes in the skill/knowledge/fear/etc. Which is the whole point; creating that belief was your real goal, because...

  3. ...use the skill/knowledge/fear/etc in an important plot point. That is, let the doc make the diagnosis because she has knowledge of cheese molds.

It’s kind of a sneaky tactic, but it works. And the nice thing is that, as writers, we can reverse-engineer the whole process based on what we need to have happen in the plot. That is, we can start with the diagnosis, and determine that in order for the doc to make the diagnosis, she’ll need special knowledge. We then create a backstory to explain the special knowledge, and write scenes in which we introduce the special knowledge and then later reveal the backstory behind it.

In this way, you get your believability without ruining any suspense. We get a cheese-mold-savvy doctor who we believe in, without any spoilerish hints that this particular knowledge will be useful later, because we’ve explained the knowledge in terms of something entirely different—an emotional wound.

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