My 14 year old has been struggling with her first novel this year. It's YA fantasy
with a prologue and italicized legends of the past, both classic fantasy backstory
devices. She wanted to know if there was some neater way to deal with backstory,
some "secret" that published writers knew about how you tell all the stuff that the
reader needs to know to understand what is going on when the real page one
begins. Unfortunately, I had to tell her that there is no "secret." That is, there is no
special technique that makes all problems of backstory disappear. Published
writers can not link into the brains of readers and download data anymore than
anyone else can (we hope!). What any writer has to do is make the backstory into
story. It's not a secret and it's not a trick. It's just hard work.
I was recently reading the twentieth novel in a beloved detective series. The first
fifty pages of this book were padded with backstory about this character or that
one, getting the reader back up to speed on events that happened in the last
nineteen novels, since few of us are going to be rereading all of them in order to
get ready for the new one. I was disappointed, however, at how the author felt
little need to tell a story with the information. The front story was going along,
and then a character popped up, and clunk -- two pages of backstory. Sloppy
writing, in my opinion.
Writing a novel is not like writing a dissertation, in which case you should feel no
obligation to entertain the readers because they will number exactly five, the
members of your committee, and they are inevitably the ones who made you add
all the boring parts, so they deserve to have to plug through four hundred pages on
Goethe's accent and his rhyme. Writing a novel is like teaching a classroom of
Kindergarteners, who are inevitably going to be more interested in the color of
what is coming out of their neighbor's nose than anything you have to tell them,
unless it is pretty damn good. You need to make those 5 year olds laugh. You
need to make them scared of what will happen next. You need to make them
believe that the story is about them or their next door neighbor or their mother or
someone they know very, very well.
A line or two describing a character's features -- acceptable.
A paragraph describing a character's genealogy -- maybe.
A page describing a character's role in the last apocalypse -- destined to bore.
In fact, one of the strange truths about backstory is that more can feel like less. If
you put things in scene, use dialog, add a few important details, and just let it be a
story, you can often get away with a good chunk of a chapter that is really
backstory, simply because it is entertaining. It may not move the front story
forward, but there are times when a break from a relentless plot can be a good
thing, can make the reader even more ready to get back to it. I wouldn't leave the
heroine hanging from a branch off a cliff while telling a story, but you get the idea.
In fact, stories within stories are an important part of fantasy. They are an
important part of any kind of literature. What stories we believe in tell a lot about
who we are. Sometimes the story within the story is useful because it can highlight
themes or hint at future events the way that a prophecy might. But more important,
you can tell a story just because it is a good story, just because you know how to
tell a good story.
There are books that have to be read at a breakneck pace, with only the central plot.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one example of this. The story is about
what happens in the games. Only one person survives. Who will it be, of the
twelve? That drives every scene of the novel.
But there are also books that are leisurely read, opening up a new view of the
fantasy world with every chapter. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is
one of these. The reader finds out about every detail of Kvothe's life history, about
every character that he meets. The readers learns about the legends of the land,
sometimes through the simple device of the plays that his parents put on in their
troupe, or in books that Kvothe later reads when he attends the university. Nothing
seems to be too small to be included in the story. But what matters is that the
reader wants to know what happens next, even within the story of the backstory.
One of my favorite books is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. Those of you
who read this column regularly know this already and may get sick of my
references to her. I hope not. I think there are many things to learn from her
storytelling. There are some good sections of her first novel that are taken up with
telling folk tales from the people of Eddis. I love them because the thief himself is
such a mysterious character and the folk tales give a glimpse into his world and
really, into himself. He is always hiding, but when he tells his stories, he comes
out of his shell. Or he pretends to, at least. But there is no attempt on the part of
the author to disguise these bits of back story as anything else. They are in italics,
set apart from the rest of the text, and nothing else really happens in the
background as the thief is telling the story. But the stories are interesting in and of
themselves. They are little gems, little short stories within the novel. I think any
one of them could sell in a magazine. If you think about your backstory that way, I
think you will have better luck. Take it out, look at it as an independent piece, and
make sure that it is worth reading on its own terms.
But don't feel obliged to put every detail of the world you have created into one
book. Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first in the Dresden files, (yes, again!) is a
great example of backstory restraint. There is nothing wrong with teasing the
reader a little. I think that is part of the joy of the reading experience, though if
you are only teasing the reader and not doing anything else in your story, then I
think you will have problems with readers feeling cheated. It is only because I
have read all the other Harry Dresden books that I know how little of Harry's
backstory is in the first one. It is eked out, story by story, throughout the whole
series. As an author, you may not know if your first book will ever sell, if you will
ever get to tell the rest of the series. That doesn't matter. It's not an excuse for
telling everything at once. A scene here or there is what you want to do.
Thinking that the reader wants to know everything at once is a big mistake of
beginning authors. Readers only want to know enough to understand most of what
is happening in the front story. They are willing to suspend their questions if the
story is interesting enough, if the characters are different, and if things that are
unexpected are happening. A few basic rules of magic will suffice in the first few
chapters. Then you can get into the details of the exceptions to all the rules. There
is no need to tell the architectural plans for every building the hero will be entering,
or to explain the history of three civilizations before the one that is currently
I tend to write backstory as necessary and while I cannot recommend this method
because of the numerous drafts that I have to write as a result, it does have the
advantage of making sure that I don't cram my books full of character studies and
histories just because I know about them and want to put my research to good use.
Even if you are doing a lot of that world building work before you start to write the
first scene, put it aside before you begin. You've done the work. Trust yourself to
remember what you need, when you need it. But don't work your novel around
trying to fit in everything that you know about your characters and your world.
A common feature of fantasy novels is a protagonist who has only just come into
his or her power, and therefore is learning with each page turn, just as the reader is.
Then it makes sense to tell information as the character learns it. But be careful not
go too far with this. The reader isn't trying to actually learn how to do magic and
will not want to read large chunks of magic books or spells. The reader wants to
see what happens as a result of those magic spells that are being learned. What
mistakes happen? What are the consequences? A wise teacher of some kind will,
of course, be on hand to give a few hints. I am annoyed by wise teachers who
withhold information from the pupil (and thus, from the reader) for no apparent
reason except to make the ending more surprising. I think it is far more interesting
when the teacher simply doesn't know, or is wrong. A bright pupil can be going
beyond what a teacher has learned in every area of knowledge.
A character from our world entering a fantasy world is another way to easily
disguise backstory, because everything that is new to the reader will also
presumably be new to the main character. Again, be careful. A few details about
setting will suffice to intrigue. Then story must take precedence. A reader doesn't
care what color the sun is in another world unless the sun is going to fall into the
ocean in the imminent future. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not too much of one.
If you are telling a story in media res where the characters have long been part of
the world they are in, and are adults who already know what their own capabilities
are, there are still mysteries to unfold. In a sense, I might argue that every novel is
a mystery. Not every novel is about a murder and who done it, but there is often a
mirroring between the protagonist and the reader, so that the two discover things
together. That is what reading is really about, discovering what the story is.
Writing is the reverse, in a way, so that writers put the puzzle together piece by
piece in a way that allows the reader to always have a glimpse of some part that is
interesting in itself, in addition to the way in which it fits into the larger whole.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison