My first thriller, Atonement, opens with a serial killer and his victim . . . letting the reader into his world and mind.
He bent her fingers back . . . all the way back. It cracked loud and final. He shuddered with excitement and anticipation. She cried for forgiveness, but the duct tape muddled her words and screams. He hated tears. How useless.
He slid the sharp, long, Bowie knife from the sheath on his belt. A jolt of excitement shot through him. He preferred using a larger knife on bigger fingers. How could he not enjoy the feel of the heavy righteous blade in his hand? The worn leather handle fit his palm. It was meant to be his. Happiness filled him for the first time in weeks.
Now he’d take his time. He’d hold back and savor the moment.
Who is this killer? What reasoning drives him to cut his victims fingers off? What has happened in his past that would give him fulfillment from such an act? I won’t answer those questions in my opening pages. Why not? Because I want to reveal the answers in the backstory.
Backstory has been described as a set of events created for a plot, offered as preceding and leading up to that plot. It’s a literary device of a narrative history all chronologically earlier than the narrative of primary interest.
I think what they mean is it’s the ‘baggage’ of our life up to this point. A backstory shares key elements— that may be depicted and revealed in a novel —affecting timing, reaction, input, support, and even shock value.
Backstory helps to corroborate the setting as well as events and makes the reader care about what happens to the characters.
But be careful: Backstory by definition takes the story backward and when you think about it – then it halts forward action. No matter how careful you are – when that story screeches to a stop . . . your reader may decide to stop reading.
Too Much, Too Soon - Too much backstory in the opening pages can be the kiss of death. I always resort to the comment, “No one waits for the action to begin.” Writing page after page of backstory at the beginning to set-up the story is not a good idea. I know you’ve read them - you have to force yourself to keep reading – because you’re convinced the information must be important. I will actually start skimming – waiting for the story to begin. This is not a good thing to have happen in your story.
Then there are the books that get off to an exciting start and just when I’m totally vested . . . the story stops to feed me backstory. What?? I’m frustrated and anxious to find out what happens…and you’re making me wait??? No!
Guess what? There is plenty of time throughout the book to feed in information the reader needs to know about your characters. Keep that story moving forward – make the reader turn those pages.
If you find yourself typing backstory and it seems to be going slow . . . guess what . . . it feels the same way to your reader. A good rule is sneak background in a little at a time without halting the flow of the story.
Timing Is Everything – So how do we sneak that backstory into the novel? As I mentioned– it must be weaved, dropped, or told a little at a time that best serves the story.
One of the best things I was told as a new writer was, “Remove the first chapter of your book. This is where your book should start. Is it exciting – filled with action and dialog? If the answer is yes, start the book there – and weave the ‘backstory’ into the story as it evolves.” That was some great writing advice.
As we develop our story – we explore who our characters are and what they want or are planning on doing. But we need to get to know their past in order to know what their future holds. That doesn’t mean the reader has to be told this ‘backstory’ all in the first chapter. And remember – if the reader doesn’t know everything right away – you have the ability to keep them guessing - what is making him/her tick?
Ask yourself, what does my reader need to know? Not everything in a person’s life is important to share with the reader. If it doesn’t further the story or share something important about the character’s personality – leave it out.
I read in an article once, “In almost all cases, if it’s backstory, it needs to be cut.” I typed that up and posted it on my office board. It’s a great reminder – don’t get caught up with information overload.
Wow – I guess that pretty much sums it up. When you think about it - no matter where we begin our stories, there’s always something that came before. What does the reader need to know? Hold details back as long as you can. Give that backstory a little at a time and you’ll keep your reader in the present . . . turning the pages for more!
Have you read Rita’s 17th book, Whispering Spirits (Whispers of the Native Soul Book 3) [Kindle Edition]
Devastated by her boyfriend’s murder, Summer Timber Wolf, Niipo Ómahkapi'si, goes back to Browning, Montana to take care of her Blackfeet grandmother. That choice finds her living in the ways of the old ones in a tipi on the shores of St. Mary’s River in the shadow of the Chief Mountains. Her Nah’ah tells her to listen to the whispering spirits of her ancestors. They are her shield, her past, her present and her future. Summer, however, is not so easily convinced.
It doesn’t take long before Summer realizes they’re not alone. Has her boyfriend’s killer found them? To protect her grandmother, Summer trusts their scout and protector, Cameron Running Crane. Soon she doubts her decision and wonders if he’s the kind of killer we instinctively fear the most; a loved one.
The truth will be revealed in time . . . what she doesn’t know is who will survive.
Email Rita at: email@example.com