Every story has backstory–the stuff that happened before the characters were born, or met, before the problem of the story was enough of a problem for you to sit down and write about it. Even ancient stories about creation have backstory about the gods and what they were up to before they decided to make earth.
But backstory (or exposition) can be a tricky thing to handle. You can’t just info-dump it as soon as your readers start the story, but you can’t avoid all of it, or readers will be lost. They won’t be able to understand why your characters do what they do and care about the things they want if they don’t know the history.
But today I want to talk about the most important, do-not-break rule of backstory: Always give the reader the backstory before they need it. There aren’t many rules that you shouldn’t break in writing, but this is one of them.
Here are a few examples. Picture how It’s a Wonderful Life would be if we didn’t know that George has always been trying to leave his town and failing. His reactions wouldn’t make sense, and even if the author tacked on a “oh, by the way, he’s always dreamed of the seeing the world and always had something stop him” note, we’d probably not care, because the backstory came after the event. Moments like when he struggles with his love for Mary or his brother’s coming back from college with a job would become a “why is he so upset?” moment for readers instead of a “oh no, how difficult for him” experience.
Or Tangled. All her life, Rapunzel has wanted to go and see the lanterns in person, and not from her tower…but if we don’t know that, if the author just dropped us into her experiencing the city or being on the boat, releasing her own lantern and seeing the sky full of lights, it’d become “ho-hom, how nice, why does this matter” scene instead of a beautiful, poignant moment.
This doesn’t mean you have to tell readers everything ahead of time. They can be introduced to minor things just beforehand without too much difficulty, though it can come off as convenient. Again, in Tangled, our knowing that her hair lights up and heals people before they’re in the underwater cavern and before she uses it to fix his hand makes those scenes work. Otherwise, they’d seem contrived, and while readers may let you get away with a few such things, it’ll make your story stronger if the backstory comes first.
The crucial thing for authors to remember about backstory is that it’s what makes scenes matter. The history is what makes character’s struggles worthwhile, and readers like being along for the struggle, to experience the ups and downs and feel, in some way, that we too have earned the happiness or sorrow, that we know exactly why this scene matters. It’s what makes the first kiss important. The first kill. It transforms being betrayed into something painful rather than being some random person siding with our enemies.
It makes Cinderella’s going to the ball a big event, because we know she’s never gone, not wanted, and normally, has no way of going but for the gracious wording of the invitation. It what turns the Ring in The Lord of the Rings from a tool, for good or evil, into something that always corrupts, has caused strife and war and danger and will do so again if it falls into the wrong hands. What your characters have been through, where they came from, and why matters, and just as you don’t want to give all this information out at once, you equally don’t want to save it until the very end of the story, or readers won’t be able to see why the events are important.
And giving only backstory that is needed will help you edit your story. If you find yourself rambling on and on about a character’s favorite breakfast cereal, stop and think about whether this factors into any scene in the story, anywhere. If not, you can safely cut it out, which can help streamline your story and keep things moving onto what really matters.
The only variation is when you’re writing a “big reveal” surprise ending, but it still follows the rule because the reader doesn’t need the details. Yet.
Like in Star Wars. We knew that Luke didn’t know his father. We knew that his father was a friend of Obi-Wan’s, and that he was a Jedi and an excellent pilot. This gave us enough backstory to feel for Luke when he finds out that Darth Vader is his father. If we hadn’t known anything about Luke’s past–if he’d been more like Han Solo or Chewbacca, where we don’t know anything about his parents–then our being told, oh, by the way, this character is his dad wouldn’t have mattered. It’d be a “hmm, isn’t that interesting; what will he do about that” moment instead of an “oh my goodness, you can’t be serious” sort of surprise.
So if you don’t want readers to have a “crickets chirping” sort of feeling, like something important is happening but they haven’t got a clue what, make sure you give them the backstory necessary before your big scenes happen. Believe me, they will thank you for it.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Images by ccodhra and Gratisography, Creative Commons