Friday, July 2, 2010

Do Backstory Right

Some people are just better at writing backstory than others. As a rule, backstory isn’t a good thing because it tends to bring the story to a halt, but many writers still insist on using it and some of the bestselling books have large segments of backstory. With an if you can beat them, join them attitude, let’s consider what it might take to create interesting backstory.

One idea is that once we’re invested in the character we’re more likely to be interested in the backstory. This is the concept behind the idea that we shouldn’t have any backstory until page [insert some page number here]. I believe there’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t explain why some writers are able to begin a book with backstory and people read the book anyway.

I saw a blog the other day in which someone was talking about Justin Cronin’s The Passage. The blogger stated that she found the book to be a page turner, even though Cronin broke so many rules, including using so much backstory. I haven’t read the entire book, but it begins with backstory. The opening lines are these:

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy, Amy Harper Bellafonte.

The day Amy was born, her mother, Jeanette, was nineteen years old. Jeanette name her baby Amy for her own mother, who’d died when Jeanette was little, and gave her the middle name Harper for Harper Lee, the Lady who’d written To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeanette’s favorite book—truth be told, the only book she’d made it all the way through in high school….

The rest of the page continues like that. Clearly, it is backstory, but Cronin uses this backstory differently than the way we normally see backstory used. Typically, backstory is used to justify something. The author is afraid the reader won’t believe the story if the reader doesn’t know where the story is coming from. In this case, the backstory is introducing the character as an interesting person. It might better be described as a character sketch than backstory, but we quickly see that even if the character does nothing she is interesting. The first paragraph implies that a girl from Iowa became a god like character. Cronin hasn’t yet told us how that happened, just that it happened. But the name is also interesting. About all I can say about Iowa is that I’ve been there. But what is a woman with the name Bellafonte doing in Iowa. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s possible, but it doesn’t seem like the type of name you’d expect to find there. That makes it interesting. A teenager having a baby tells us something and the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird struck a chord with Jeanette when no other book did tells us something also. We just aren’t sure what it is.

Do you see what happened there? Cronin’s backstory doesn’t answer questions that we didn’t want answered but instead raises questions that we hope he’ll answer in the book or just in the next paragraph. That’s really what the rule should be. Rather than making it a rule that we shouldn’t use backstory, the rule should be that we raise questions as we write. I don’t mean the kind with question marks at the end, but the reader should encounter details that cause him to question how it came to be or why the character is doing that. Even the simplest of activities can raise questions in the mind of the reader. A character sitting in a café may stir his coffee with a spoon. That is an ordinary thing that doesn’t raise any questions, but what if we instead said that our character stirred his coffee with a gold plated bottle opener? That would raise questions like who would have a bottle opener these days and why is this one gold plated? Why is it so unimportant to him that he would stick it in his coffee? If you’re going to do backstory, focus on the details and make us ask questions.

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