April 4, 2019
by Christine Kohler
I started reading a novel by a big-name best-selling mystery writer in the adult market when backstory confused the heck out of me in Chapter 2. I plodded through to Chapter 4 when, voila, that same backstory, only expanded, popped up again. This time it made sense in context. In my humble opinion, it never should have been inserted as early as Chapter 2. [I put the book down early in Chapter 5 because of poor writing and frequent tense and first-third person changes in single point of view passages.]
When I taught writing for a decade, one of the biggest problems novice novelists had was knowing when to insert the backstory. It's understandable because often we don't start "at the beginning" of a character's story. Often we begin the contained story in a book—the one that fits a story arc, and will hook the reader, then take off running pell mell—media res at the point of impact. Or, in laymen's terms, at the point where the apple cart is overturned. So, we have all this backstory that we feel the reader must know to understand our character and fully appreciate how the character got into this situation, and why the characters respond the way they do. (If you are tempted to add a prologue for this reason, don't. See my article on the purpose for prologues in children's literature.)
However, if you front-load your tale with backstory, then you are as guilty of slowing down the forward moving plot as if you had started the story in the wrong place. Either way, you lose their attention.
In first drafts, get the story down. Don't worry about what is backstory and what is forward-moving story at that point. Don't even get married to where your story begins. It's common to write a first draft, then in revision to realize the story really begins on Page 5 or Chapter 2 or backed up even further to show what is called the "Ordinary World" in a hero's journey.
In revision, get out your colored markers. One color for "Telling" and one color for "Showing" (action). One color for "Confused" and one color for "Backstory." (I capitalized the words here to show I use T, S, C, B as my shorthand codes.) In the confused places, often caught by a trusted critique partner, you may need a dollop of backstory. Just a dollop though early on. Maybe only a sentence or two.
In the places you've marked as backstory, take another colored marker and highlight how much of that backstory in the early chapters can be moved later and still have the context understood. How much can be deleted all together and not lose meaning or add confusion to the present story (what the readers already knows or needs to know)?
Some genres require backstory earlier, such as historical in children's literature. Ingrain in your brain this fact, all children today were born in the 21st century. Their Common Core experience is limited to only things that happened after the year 2001, at the earliest. Consider anything written in the 20th cenury as history to readers age 18 and younger. That's why you often need to fill in readers ignorant of the background in historical fiction and nonfiction. Consider, too, that this would also be the case if using in the story any pop culture such as music, dance, art before the 21st century.
This same situation holds true in children's lit if you are writing about a sport, such as parkour, that is unfamiliar to readers.
Other cases where backstory might need front-loaded is in mysteries where the premise and stakes need set.
Yes, we need to bust the backstory into smaller bites in the beginning. Or delay it. Or eliminate as much as possible so not to slow the forward moving action and bore readers. But, unfortunately, we can't cut all backstory, or make a hard-fast rule to dump it in, say, Chapter 5, if the reader gets lost early on without it.
As always, I welcome comments regarding this difficult writing skill.