Friday, February 13, 2009


Backstory or memory lane?

You are going to come across this somewhere along the line in writing your short story, novel, or your memoirs. Backstory is the past of the character that you’ll want your reader to know about.

You don’t start a book in backstory. This will have your reader scratching his/her head and wondering, “Where did THAT come from?” You want to gently guide them down memory lane and give them little bits and pieces of your characters past.

Don’t try and give the reader a platter full of memories. When we go out to a fine restaurant are we served the main course right away? No, we’re given an appetizer to wet our whistles, so we look forward to the more delectable meal to come.

This is what we’ll use backstory for. The character has a past and the reader, after you have them hooked on the character, will want to know what secrets lie in their past that makes them who they are. The reader is craving more and you will give them an appetizer of your characters past.

You will lead the reader down the winding path through the backstory until the reader has an “AHA” moment. They will tie all the pieces together through the little bites that you’ve given them and not only will they want more, they'll go back for seconds!

The dessert of the story is the conclusion that after the reader has had his meal, he now looks forward to the finale. With all the backstory given in gentle bites, your reader will savor the dessert even more.

Don’t try and force the backstory on your reader. Let it come naturally in places where not only your character needs it but the other characters in the story feed off of it. Maybe they were present in some of these memories. Maybe this bit of backstory is due to something that they did to the main character, once again, tightening the bond of author and reader.

You’re not writing a mystery but through the backstory a mystery is unfolding. You need to make the backstory relevant to the story as a whole. If it has no use in the context of the story then don’t use it. During revision it might even be cut all together because you see it doesn’t fit in that certain place. But keep it just in case that it fits somewhere else.

Memories can be a blessing or a curse. When I was a kid I remember being four, when I was an adult, I remembered being a teen. Now that I’m wiser than I was in my twenties I remember being four, ten, 16, 20, etc etc. But in my memoirs I am only putting relevant memories that are MINE.

Do this with your character, only use their memories and make them relevant to the story so that it moves the story forward. Just because it’s called ‘backstory’ doesn’t mean you’re taking your story backwards, it means you will be propelling your reader further into the depths of the character.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good points, Joni.

IMO, backstory exists to enrich your character. Not all of it has to be used, especially in the beginning. It's rather ironic that to catch the reader you need to use very specific bait which is derived from the general backstory stash, but after the reader is hooked, it is that very stash which serves as the source for further elaboration into the character.

As an example, consider Hannibal from "Silence of the Lambs." In this book Harris provides necessary background and no more, but in "Hannibal Rising" Harris delivers what is essentially the whole cow. Imagine. An entire novel dedicated to backstory.

Boggles the mind.