My recent reading has hammered it in: Backstory–a word my spellchecker hates (though it doesn’t have a problem with “spellchecker”)…I swear; it’s like being edited by a 6th grader with OCD–is absolutely crucial. I’ve known this for a long time, but I’m sort of obsessing about it, now, as I prepare for this new book. I see backstory everywhere in great writing, and it makes all the difference.
You’ve probably heard it: “Your characters aren’t born on Page One.” Meaning, our characters need a history, a reason to be the way they are, where they are, and with whom they are. Lately, I’ve also realized that this rule isn’t just for characters. Places and sometimes even objects need a backstory. The town they live in, that rocking chair in the corner, that leather-bound book there on the shelf, that old pitcher with the crack in it, the dog asleep in the corner…anything can benefit from a backstory. Problem is, I can’t put all that backstory in a book.
New writers often seem to think that, if something is not in the book, it’s not important. This may well be true, but with backstory, this attitude can lead to two major mistakes: putting backstory in the book, and not putting backstory in the book.
Not putting backstory in the book is just as bad as not having any at all. It doesn’t matter how much backstory is there in my head, if it never makes it to the page, it never makes it to my reader. Oh, I’ve heard all the artsy-fartsy types (my spellchecker doesn’t like “artsy-fartsy” either) drone on about how, even though it’s not on the page, it informs the page, and I say “bosh.” It only informs me, and unless I put something about it on the page, it’ll never make it to my reader.
But putting backstory in the book can be just as bad, because the tendency is to write everything chronologically. If I start my tale by relating all that backstory, then I’ve started my tale before the real story actually begins, and that’s…well, it’s going to be boring. I mean, it’s backstory, not story-story; it’s important to what’s going on, but it’s not what actually is going on.
As clear as is the summer’s sun, I presume? Let me rephrase.
I can’t start a story with Timmy falling down the well when he was six years old (which gives him a mortal fear of small places) and then cut to the adult Tim and have him get stuck in an elevator, which causes him to faint. Where’s the tension in that? The reader will see it coming a mile away.
Just as bad is a story where adult Tim gets stuck in an elevator and faints, with no explanation whatsoever.
So, I need to find a happy medium. How much of that backstory is important to my story-story? It’s important that he has claustrophobia…okay, so I need to show him being afraid of that enclosed space, but is it important that he acquired this phobia from the incident at the well? Is it important that he’s had this phobia since he was six? Is it important that his father pushed him down the well?
The story will dictate that, but unless I have all the backstory ready to go, how can I possibly put it into the book?