Monday, February 12, 2018

A 3-Step Plan for Handling Backstory in a Series

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Backstory. It’s right up there with adverbs for the top things writers avoid when writing. But in a series, backstory is more just just the history going into book one—it’s everything that’s happened in previous books, too.

This is particularly challenging if the series has an over-arcing storyline. Events from previous books affect what’s happening in the current book, and if readers haven’t read them (or haven’t read them in a long time), references to those events are meaningless or confusing.

I ran into this problem head-on with my first series, The Healing Wars. I launched my second series this week (Blood Ties), and I’m actually planning the backstory for future books. I learned my lessons with the trilogy and hope to avoid many of the backstory frustrations I’d run into there.

Here’s my three-step plan for a smooth backstory experience:

Step One: Redefine the Backstory for Each Book

As they say, don’t reinvent the wheel. Trying to summarize everything that happened up until that point in the series is just adding unnecessary words and bogging down the book. It’s also wasted effort, because not everything is going to be relevant to that particular story.

For example, let’s look at how the backstory grew in my trilogy:
In The Shifter, my protagonist was the orphaned girl with a secret who lost her parents in a failed war for independence.

In Blue Fire, she was the orphaned girl with a secret who lost her parents in a failed war for independence and because of that did some really dumb things to save her sister and caused all kinds of trouble for herself she now had to deal with.

In Darkfall, she was the orphaned girl with a secret who lost her parents in a failed war for independence and because of that did some really dumb things to save her sister and caused all kinds of trouble for herself, which then put her on the most wanted list for lots of bad people and landed her in more trouble with even badder people and nearly caused the destruction of an entire city.

See how tough getting all of that into book three was going to be?

But most of the backstory from The Shifter didn’t need to be in Blue Fire. It was important to know that one single line (orphan, secret, dead parents, war) and that was it. That established my protagonist’s character and let readers know her motivations.

What mattered most going into Blue Fire, was that she used her pain shifting ability to save her sister, and in doing so, uncovered a sinister plot by some bad people who were going to retaliate in book two.

What mattered going into Darkfall, was how her actions in book two triggered the main problem in book three and put her front and center of the conflict.

So if we go back and reexamine the backstory necessary for each book:
In The Shifter, my protagonist was the orphaned girl who lost her parents in a failed war for independence.

In Blue Fire, she was the pain shifter who exposed the bad guy’s plan and created a major problem for the city she lived in.

In Darkfall, she was the near-mythical figure who didn’t want any of the attention or responsibility she was getting and felt like a failure to those she cared about.

She still had the same history, but the backstory driving her in each book was new. And those were the backstory details readers needed to know.

What’s vital for readers to know going into this book in the series? Some events are going to directly affect what happens in the next book, and it’s important for readers to know those details.

What three details must readers know in this story?
Limit yourself to three or fewer. This will force you to choose only the details that matter and not be tempted to throw in history that will bog down the story.

(Here’s more on revealing a character's past without falling into backstory)

Step Two: Pretend it’s the First Book, from a Different Angle

I found trying to summarize the previous book(s) made everything harder. What worked for me, was pretending whatever book in the series I was working on was the first one. I pretended readers had never seen these characters or this world before, and thought about what was needed for the story to make sense.

Of course, this made it easy to re-hash exactly what I said in book one, which would have only made the book feel repetitious and stale. The trick is to find a new way to say the same information, or find another aspect of the character’s history to reveal instead.

For example, in book one, it’s clear that my protagonist, Nya, has had a hard life, but there are hints that she was once more. Her grandmother held a position of power before the enemy invaded and conquered her city and her people. In book two, more of her family history is revealed, letting new readers know how much she’s lost, but also giving old readers another layer of her past. In book three, the full truth of who she was is revealed, and how she went from that to where she is at that point in the story. Same past, but the depth of that past grows as the story (and character) does.

What aspects of the original backstory need to be restated? Things that are key to the character will no doubt need to be revisited, so think about how might you shed new light on that old information.

What aspects of previous books must be included? Pretend the previous books were just character histories you created when you developed the story. What’s vital to this book making sense?

(Here’s more on dealing with backstory in your novel)

Step Three: Use What Matters to the Current Story and Ignore the Rest

This holds true even for book one. But there’s fine line between “what matters” and “what we think matters.” Ask yourself:

Does knowing the bit of history change the understanding of the scene? If yes, then the backstory might be serving the story and you can leave it in.

Does knowing this bit of history explain too much about the motivations of the character and rob the reader of the chance to wonder why the character is acting that way? Sometimes explaining reasons so readers “get it” is the worst thing to do. Had I revealed all of Nya’s past in book one, no one would have cared and it probably would have weakened her as a character. Readers needed to experience her struggles with her and see hints of her past to make them wonder and care about what she was trying to do. When her past was finally revealed, it made it all the more emotionally powerful.

What’s gained by not adding the backstory?
Knowing too much about a character too soon gives readers no reason to keep reading about them. Do you want to hear someone’s entire life story on a first date, or do you want to get to know them and all their quirks over time? Keep the mystery alive and hold back a little.

Backstory shapes the characters and make them act the way they do. Revealing backstory that affects motivation or decision making feels natural because it has a place in the story and matters to the things readers care about. Random history typically feels stuck in because it has no place in what’s current unfolding in the scene or story.

(Here’s more on making backstory work for you)

As writers, we’re told not to use backstory, but in a series, we can’t avoid it or the book risks losing or confusing our readers.

Backstory is a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be evil. It can be a fun way to drop the breadcrumbs of a character’s story into the tale and lead readers to the secrets and cool things you spent so much time creating. The more history you have, the more select you can be on what your share. Think of it as an opportunity to share the best parts of your history every book.

How much backstory do you put into your sequels or series? Do you struggle with what to add and what to hold back? 

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. My publisher has an interesting take on backstory. He considers it a reward for those who have read the previous books in the series. As for telling backstory, the third Bourne movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, serves as a perfect example. The director spoon feeds you the backstory without killing the pulse-pounding action.

    1. I love that! What a great way to think about it.

  2. Janice, I always enjoy reading your articles. Thanks for all the insightful ideas and inspiration.

  3. Thank you for this, Janice. Because of this post, you got me thinking how to drop in backstory in my Casebook mysteries past the first novel without clogging the subsequent ones. So far, from books 1-5, I've listed:

    C #1 Acceptance.
    C #2 (building on C #1) Bonding a friendship;
    C #3 (building on C ##1, #2) Courageous champions (the catching one another's 6 kind, not awarded kind);
    C #4 (building on C #1-#3) 2nd chances;
    C #5 (building on C #1-C #4) Never giving up (perseverance doesn't guarantee success, but without it, you won't be.)

    I'd love comments on this. Wow, this takes some thinking--but the payoff's totally worth it.

    1. Nice! I like how it builds on the theme and grows over the course of the series.