How to Write Backstory for Novels
If you want your reader to pick up your novel and be hooked from the very first page, it's vital to throw them straight into the narrative, and not bore or distract with background detail. But on the other hand, that background detail—how your characters got to where they are today—is essential for your audience to understand what's going on. So how do you know what to include? How do you incorporate it effectively? That's the art of "backstory."
Backstory is your novel's history: the story of what happened in the past that led to the situation you've decided to write about.
The difficulty, of course, is that there are rarely any "clean breaks" in the story of someone's life. Your novel cuts just one slice out of a continuum that stretches all the way back to when your characters were born, and continues far beyond the end of your book.
What you have to do is decide how big the slice is. Where in the lifeline of your main character do you make the first cut, and where do you finish?
Backstory explains why your characters behave the way they do.
Why is your heroine so touchy about her weight? (because her ex left her for a skinny supermodel).
Why does your hero step in and stop some anonymous kids fighting? (because his brother died in a similar fight when he didn't intervene).
With that in mind, many novices think they have to start with the backstory, so the reader understands the later scenes. The result is a long, boring prologue or first chapter. Readers are left thinking, "Why do I need to know this? What's the point?" - because there's no way to hint at the impact those scenes will have in the future (unless you resort to statements like "Little did she know that in the future..." which is old-fashioned, clunky and breaks the reader's connection with the character). Most readers will give up before they get to the real action!
The rule of thumb is: if in doubt, leave it out!
For the first few pages, it doesn't matter if your reader doesn't know your character's background or motivations - in fact, it can work in your favor, because it makes the reader curious WHY the character is behaving that way.
There are plenty of techniques which enable you to incorporate backstory into your main narrative as you go along (which we'll look at shortly). It takes practice to blend them seamlessly into your story, but they're very effective when you do. So there's no need to start your story with tedious background. Instead, your novel should always start with your main story. Ask yourself, what is my novel's main event?
An Example of Too Much Backstory
To give you an example, a friend asked me to critique her novel about her family history. She felt it was worth telling, because her great-grandfather had been hanged for murdering his wife (although he maintained his innocence to the end), and that event had affected the family for generations.
It's obvious that her "main event" is how her great-grandfather came to be arrested and tried for murder. If I were writing the novel, I'd be spoiled for choice on how to start! For instance, I could open with:
- the murder itself, concealing the identity of the murderer; or
- great-grandfather on the run (it was an exciting chase!) or
- a Prologue set in the courtroom during the trial - then Chapter 1 would go back to a scene where the wife is alive, so we get to know her before the dastardly deed is done.
Instead, my friend started her novel with a Prologue about her family history, including:
- When they arrived in the area (generations before great-grandfather);
- an exhaustive list of who married whom and when;
- how many children each generation had;
- how their religious beliefs were formed;
- how they lived
For readers who survived the prologue, Chapter 1 then describes the scene on her great-grandfather's homestead before the murder actually takes place.
The sad thing is that there was a cracking yarn waiting in later chapters, but the average reader wouldn't make it past the Prologue, let alone through the tedious Chapter 1.
The even sadder thing is that almost the entire Prologue and Chapter 1 had NO relevance to the story. The reader didn't need to know one speck of that family history to understand her great-grandfather's story. Which brings me to another important point:
"Backstory" is RELEVANT history, not ALL history. Irrelevant background information has absolutely no place in your novel.
You have to be ruthless! It's hard enough to include essential history without slowing the narrative—squeezing in irrelevant details is the kiss of death.
I know, I know—you've done all that research and it seems such a shame to waste it! But the truth is, if it doesn't carry the story along, it will only annoy readers rather than interest them.
When to Include Backstory
A golden rule for backstory is, don't include it until it's needed.
Every time you're tempted to add in a bit of your character's history, ask yourself, "Does the reader need to know this information right now?"
If not, leave it out.
Sometimes, it's fine to break this rule—for instance, something happens in a scene which would naturally make your character think about his past. It would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to mention it. Just don't dwell on it, or offer too much detail, if it's not important at that point in the story.
How to Include Backstory
Once you've decided what the relevant bits of backstory are, and when your reader needs to know them, the question is—how do you include them?
There are several techniques you can use, which we'll look at next. But whichever you choose, do it gradually. Never dump all your backstory into the narrative in one solid, indigestible lump.
Aside to the Camera
Have you ever watched a film where the action suddenly freezes, and the main character turns and starts talking straight to the camera? That's the rookie way of inserting backstory in your novel, and it's a bad idea.
Let's say your narrator is Grace, and you've got to the point where the reader needs to know about Marcia. So you write a paragraph that says:
"Grace could not blame Marcia for refusing to drink wine with Aloart. Marcia believed that Aloart's father, then Count of Drico but now King of Malako, had engineered the death of her father when Marcia had been but five years old, in order to deny her family its birthright and achieve his own ascension to the throne."
That all makes sense, BUT would Grace (our narrator) actually be thinking all of that in her head? No, because she knows the story well. The most she would think is, "I can't blame Marcia, given that rat probably killed her father". If you include more than that, it's as though Grace is stopping, turning to the readers and saying, "Oh, sorry, just to bring you up to speed..."
If you're writing the story in third person subjective, or in first person, then you're trying to immerse the reader inside your main character's head. You want your reader to BE the character. The moment your main character turns and starts explaining stuff to the reader, you remind the reader they're an outsider. You destroy the illusion. So it's better to find other ways to include the backstory.
Note that there is a style of novel written as though the main character is telling a yarn, perhaps sitting around a campfire. In that style of writing, the reader is always outside listening to the main character, so there's no problem with the character stopping to explain odd bits of background or interjecting a comment—in fact it helps maintain the mood.
The most obvious way to include backstory is a flashback. The big problem with flashbacks is that, strictly speaking, they should be written in the pluperfect tense. If that doesn't mean much to you, it's because it's a tense we rarely use in daily life, so it feels unnatural to most people!
Pluperfect (or past perfect) is used to show that the events you're describing are happening before the events in the novel, which are already in the past. If you just tell the flashback in ordinary past tense, the reader can get confused and think the events are happening at the same time as the rest of the novel, and then it will make no sense.
Here's an example:
He dragged an old barrel into the corner of the cellar to set on while he got his breath back. He couldn't hear his pursuers. Time to rest awhile and work out what to do next. He barely understood what had happened.
She had been dead when he opened the door. He hadn't even had time to cross the floor to touch her, when he had heard the squelch of boots on the muddy path. He had had to think fast, and the cellar door had been the only way out. He had bolted through the door, barred it behind him and taken the steps two at a time, not stopping to light a candle. The cellar had been dim, lit only by the small window through which they delivered supplies. He had ...
Notice all the "had's"? That's pluperfect. If you said "she was dead when he opened the door", the reader might think he was opening a door in the cellar, right then and there. The pluperfect is essential to show these are events he's thinking back to - but you can see it can become clunky. And if it's a long flashback, there's always a slightly awkward transition back to the main narrative at the end.
That's why using other techniques to introduce backstory is generally preferable.
One of the great things about modern third-person subjective writing is that you write inside the head of your characters, not standing outside them. That gives you the chance to report their thoughts, as well as their actions.
Think about it—how often do you go over events in your head, or beat yourself up over something, or mentally complain that circumstances have forced you into a particular action? You can use that natural tendency in your characters. Here's an example:
The bathwater was too hot. Gabrielle perched on the side of the bath while she ran the cold, swishing the water with her hand now and then to test the temperature.
Her dress was beyond redemption. She was almost glad, in spite of the cost. Only her mother would choose a scarlet dress for a redhead. She stepped out of it. The cool air struck her skin and she hurried to climb into the warm water. It came almost to her neck, warm, silky and fragrant with bath salts.
She closed her eyes. Let it wash away all trace of Bertie!
She raised her hand out of the water. Blue marks were already developing where he had gripped her wrist. Would she have bruises on her face too, where he’d clamped his hand over her mouth—she dunked herself under the water, head and all, as if to hide from the memory.
It didn’t work. She surfaced, and a sob escaped her.
Pull yourself together, Gabby. Chin up!
That’s what her grandmother would have said. But she would have said it in a kindly way, and given her a warm hug and a hot cup of chocolat for comfort. But Grand’maman was dead, lost in the Great War, along with darling Papa. There was no home for her in Bordeaux now, and precious little hope of comfort in the poky Wimbledon flat she now called home. She couldn’t expect any sympathy from Mama—just an interrogation.
In this fairly short internal monologue, I've told you Gabrielle is a redhead, she's French, her nickname is Gabby, she doesn't get on with her mother, and is exiled from France.
Unless you're writing a romance, though, you don't want to wallow in internal monologue, because it can slow down your narrative.
A more lively, and very simple, way to weave in backstory is dialogue. Your protagonist could talk about old times with her friend, or be interrogated by a new player. You could have two minor characters gossiping about your heroine's past, or someone reading out an old newspaper article.
There are so many ways to do this, I'm not going to attempt an example—now it's over to you!