WEAVE IN BACKSTORY
Every character has a history. If you travel back in your protagonist’s past, you’ll find she became an orphan at the age of two, he had a disastrous marriage that left him fearful of relationships, she spent three years in prison, he lost his son in the Vietnam War. The characters will have secrets they’ve harbored for years, unhealed wounds both physical and emotional, hopes and dreams unfulfilled. They will have good times, of course, but those events rarely cause conflict and conflict is essential to every well-crafted novel.
If you’re going to create a complex character, you need to know this information before the book opens, but the reader can wait for it. In fact, you want the reader to wait for it because that information builds suspense.
Give away all the character’s backstory in the first chapter, and you reduce the reader’s interest.
You can include backstory at the precise moment it’s needed through five techniques:
- Internal monologue
- Key words
Here’s an example that includes all three mistakes:
“Hi, Bob, howzit going?”
“Okay, how about you, John?’
“I was just thinking about you the other evening. Remember when we were camping and you had nightmares about monsters and you woke me up screaming that they were chasing you. After we got home, you went to the shrink and got some medication that really helped you.”
“Yeah, I remember that. Your mother told you not to hang out with me anymore.”
“Uh-huh. And we didn’t see each other for a year.”
Not only does this conversation seem manufactured, it’s meant to convey information to the reader, not to John, who already knows what happened. Even worse, it doesn’t appear to serve a purpose. If it led to deeper conflict between the two men and that conflict was central to the story, it could be rewritten in a way that arouses the reader’s curiosity and presents story questions, but in its present form it’s as dead a squashed toad in the road.
Let’s look at another example and examine why it works.
I sat on the porch swing with my sister, Maylene, and my father, watching twilight spread over our front lawn like tarnished brass. It was the time of the evening when fireflies flickered and cicadas droned in the nearby trees. Voices and laughter floated lightly across the still, sultry air from nearby homes, and in the house next door Frank Sinatra crooned “Night and Day.”
A noise—a low reverberation like a rumble of indigestion in the very earth itself—began in the distance, a block or two away and grew louder as it approached. Several seconds passed before I realized it was a car coming down the street.
Dad raised his head, cocking his good ear in that direction. “Muffler’s gone.”
An old black sedan with a thick rope securing a dilapidated brown trunk to its roof lumbered into view and slowly passed our house, spewing steam from under its hood.
Maylene sat up straight. “Did you see that?”
Dad nodded. “ It’s a ‘46 Ford. The radiator’s overheated.”
“I’m talking about the woman driving it.”
I had seen her. Tiny and the color of strong coffee, she stared straight ahead, clutching the steering wheel as though it might get away from her. I had seen the boy too, a head taller than she was, sitting in the back seat, the angled sun glinting off his glasses, his skin the same brass sheen as the twilight sky, his dusky brown hair clinging to his head in tightly twisted filaments.
The Ford slogged on.
Maylene stopped the swing’s lazy glide, her lips tight, her blue eyes hard. “That woman was a nigger.”
“You could barely see her,” I said, “and, besides, the boy was white.”
Of course, the woman was a Negro, the boy at least part, but I didn’t like the contempt in Maylene’s voice.
Her round face glistened with perspiration, the front of her blue-patterned housedress tight and damp against her ample bosom. Her upper lip curled like a petulant child’s. “She’s a nigger, Isabella, and not light either. Brown as dirt.”
“Maylene, do you really need to call her that?” I said.
“Well, that’s what she is.” She turned to Dad. “What’s she doing here and, for that matter, why’s she got a mulatto boy with her?”
He frowned. “How the hell should I know? You’re sitting here on this porch seeing things the same way I am.” He leaned back in his wheelchair, revealing patches of sweat under the arms of his short-sleeved plaid shirt.
“They’re probably just passing through,” I said.
She snorted. “Nobody passes through a town that’s on the road to nowhere.”
“So, maybe they’re looking for the resort.”
“Why would they be headed to the resort? They’re not allowed in there.”
I shrugged. “Maybe the rules have changed. All kinds of things have been going on out there since Nicholas Asher Sr. had his stroke.”
She swiveled her gaze from me to Dad. “What kind of things? No one’s told me.”
“Well, Maylene,” Dad said, “if you don’t know about them, they can’t be all that important, can they?”
Her face appeared to be leaking red. I pushed my feet against the porch floor, setting the swing in motion again, causing her to lurch a bit.
Dad picked up an oval-shaped fan from his lap and flapped it so fast that the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd” and “Ideal Beach Baptist Church,” sent out a kaleidoscope of blues and yellows. “Damned heat. Can’t even go in the house ‘cause you two turned it into an oven putting up those beans.”
Maylene was still staring at the street. “We’ve never had niggers in this town before. If there’s some now, someone should make it their business to find out what they’re doing here. I would think you’d be more curious, Dad.”
“Can’t see why I should be. They’re not here to visit me.”
She made a face.
“With that car in the shape it’s in,” he added, “they’ll be lucky to make it to Moon’s Garage, and since he’s closed by now, I ‘spect you’ll get plenty of opportunity to poke into their affairs tomorrow.”
She glowered. She said Dad treated her mean because she wasn’t a boy, but I don’t think that was the problem. I was the oldest at twenty-nine. Maylene came two years later and then Sophia fourteen years after that, but Dad never picked on Sophia and me the way he did Maylene. He said the problem was her big mouth, but the real problem was they were too much alike.
She abruptly swung toward me. “Isabella, don’t you at least wonder what that woman and her boy are doing here?”
“No, Maylene, I don’t.” Although, of course I did.
She pressed her lips together. “Well, I suppose not. You never were suspicious of strangers, not even when you should have been. It’s a good thing she’s not some flashy-looking man. Bet you’d be wondering then.”
I heard a clunk and realized Dad had dropped the fan to the porch floor. He gave her a hard stare.
“Don’t you need to get on home and put those boys of yours to bed?” he said, a dangerous edge in his tone.
“It’s all right, Daddy,” I said. “She’s just envious.”
“Envious?” she scoffed. She stopped the swing and stood up with a thump of her shoes on the boards. “Envious of who? Why on earth would I be envious of someone who scandalizes our entire family by running off to Florida to sail around the world with a con man?”
“I meant you’re just envious of anyone who leads an exciting life,” I said.
I thought for a second she was going to slap me.
“Dammit, you two,” Dad said, “stop your bickering.”
Maylene stomped toward the porch steps. “I’m going home.” Over her shoulder, she gave me a murderous look.
After she’d left, Dad murmured, “Don’t let her get to you, Isabella.”
I smiled sweetly. “Why, Daddy, I never do.”
But I felt the familiar anguish of memory and knew I would go up to my room and use the razor blade.
Here’s what works with this example:
1. It begins on the first page with action that is central to the story. A black woman and a young man arrive in a small town populated only by whites. Hook your reader and follow up with dialogue and behavior that complicates the situation.
2. Important story questions are introduced almost immediately, some delivered directly, some hinted at subtextually. What are the black woman and young man doing in this small out-of-the-way town? What will happen to them if the other inhabitants are as bigoted as Maylene?
Maylene accuses her sister, Isabella, of creating a family scandal. The father reacts with annoyance, but Isabella seems to brush it off. However, her intentions (interior thoughts) show otherwise. Why does she mention the razor blade and what will she do with it? Story questions are significant because they cause the reader to turn the page to learn the answers.
3. All of this information, including some of Isabella’s backstory, is woven into the narrative and dialogue through implication. Notice that the father shows his feelings toward Maylene through his behavior. We already have open conflict between the sisters and the arrival of outsiders promises more conflict.
Isabella’s inner thoughts give us insight into her character. Publicly she is one person; privately she is another. Already, the reader assumes she, Maylene and the two black people in the car have intriguing backstories that will be revealed as the novel goes along.
4. Weaving in backstory without disrupting the flow of action requires a delicate balance. Dwelling too long on past events can pull reader out of the main story.
5. Because the reader will want to know more about the characters than what is briefly implied, it’s likely the writer will later use flashbacks to give the reader more information and answers to his questions. However, it’s still possible to deliver backstory through a few sentences.
Here’s an example:
A middle-aged woman returns to her hometown and visits her elementary school While she’s on the playground, she hears the voices (inner thoughts) of her childhood. “White trash, white trash. That’s all you are. White trash.” Just a few words but we don’t need a long flashback to know the bullying she suffered there.
The writer’s job is to create a believable fictional world through sensory details, dialogue, behavior, foreshadowing and internal thoughts that reveal motivations for the character’s actions. It’s akin to giving the reader one bite of a tantalizing dessert, enticing her to want more. Once you learn the technique of weaving in backstory, you’ll find you can create it with very little effort and few words.