The Importance of Backstory
I love a good backstory. I love a flashback or a memory, something to tie me to a character and give me a reference point. I love learning about the characters pasts: where they came from, mistakes they’ve made, why they are they’re irrationally angry at the word or afraid of commitment, who has hurt them.
Some stories are told linearly, but the vast majority of novels jump around in time, incorporating backstory and flashbacks. If the writer does it well, then the reader hardly notices. Clumsy flashbacks, at the worst, can halt the action and jar the reader. It can be difficult to balance the need for forward motion in the plot, and character building backstory.
A trick I’ve used in each book is to find the key point at which the character’s relationships changed in the past, and dedicate an entire chapter to it. In Thought I Knew You, this point was centered around the shift in Claire’s relationship with Drew and her husband, Greg, after her daughter’s birthday party. It was fully dramatized and comprised of one whole chapter.
In Binds That Tie, I used the same technique when exposing the relationship between Jake, Maggie’s boyfriend at the time, and Miranda, Maggie’s sister. The chapter is a pivotal point in the book and needed significant page space to fully understand the thought processes of all three characters, and how that affects their decisions throughout the book. Maggie to stay accepting and silent, at the expense of her self-respect, Jake to pretend as though his actions were perfectly acceptable, and Miranda to act as though she had a right to her sister’s boyfriend.
Binds That Tie builds flashbacks into almost every chapter, either in small snippets or full paragraphs. Maggie and Chris are fully defined by their pasts, unable to let go of mistakes, their own and each other’s. An important part of Binds That Tie was Maggie’s relationship to her parents and her sister, and how it had always been cold. One of my favorite snippets in the book exposes a crack in the veneer of Maggie’s perfect, rich little childhood:
Maggie had some flashes of beach vacations, exotic locations and bright, bright sun with blue water, and staying in houses with cold marble floors. Her father’s silver hair, glinting and plasticky, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. Her mother saying, “Shhhh, don’t yell, you’ll wake your father,” as they made silent sand castles. Her mother, preening and fluffing around her father as though he were an exotic bird. Maggie and Miranda were unwelcome appendages, interruptions to their carefully calculated life. Maggie remembered watching her parents kiss and wondering what it felt like to kiss glass. Maggie pushed the thoughts of her father down where she always pushed them. Somewhere deep inside her was a pit of memories as sharp and cutting as the day they’d happened.
Another effective strategy for sneaking in backstory is to do it during dialogue. I tend to steer clear of this because I’ve never been able to do it effectively. Whenever I try, it sounds terribly contrived. I do, however, like to drop hints in dialogue:
Jake stepped back and shook his head. “We’re still family, right? And we’ve known each other for what? Twenty years? Why wouldn’t I help you?”
“I don’t know. Ever since Vermont, everything has been so screwed up with us. And now, here you are—”
“Where is your head, man? Why are you thinking about that? Vermont was six years ago. Just yes or no, do we have to talk?”
The goal here is to get the reader to think: Hmmmm what the heck does that mean? Then wait a little bit, although I wouldn’t recommend waiting more than a chapter or two, to tell the story.
I think that the events of character’s pasts are important when trying to get the reader to understand their actions, thought processes, decisions, and the truly gifted writers get the reader fully invested in a character and to understand motivations that perhaps the character themselves do not understand. This is always my goal, although I admit, I have a lot to learn.
I’ve recently read Laura Lippman’s After I’m Gone. The story jumps around in time, back and forth, delicately weaving together the disappearance of Felix Brewer, from the point of view of his wife, his mistress, and his daughters. The backstory in this novel really is half the story and Lippman does this so incredibly effortlessly. There are novels I read for fun, and rarely think about after I’m done with them. Others, I keep flagged in my mind as novels I can learn from, whether it be realistic dialogue, or fascinating mannerisms, flawless characterization or master of tensions. After I’m Gone is a novel that I will return to again and again, to understand how to thread the character’s pasts into the present. I thought it was brilliant.
When all is said and done, the present action is the most important part of the story, but understanding the “why’s” of your characters is imperative to a deeper, more memorable tale.
Kate Moretti’s first book, Thought I Knew You, made the New York Times Best Seller list last week!