Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Sprinkling Seeds of Backstory: How This Writing Faux Pas Can Work In Your Story

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Backstory has its place in a novel, but the trick is knowing when and where to use it. Bonnie Randall takes her turn at the podium this month to share tips on how to make backstory work for you.

We’ve all heard the lectures: Backstory bogs down your book. Backstory pulls the reader out of your story. Backstory BAD. Cutting it GOOD.

Mostly that’s true.

Sometimes, though, a plot or character’s backstory adds to the richness of theme or atmosphere in a piece of fiction—and can even operate to drive the plot forward. The trick, though, is to use it sparingly—and almost cunningly—when you’re crafting your work. Consider:

1. Pairing Backstory With The Current Problem Your Character Is Tackling:

In this passage from my current WIP, I am aware that I’m taking a massive risk by slamming backstory right into the opening lines. Nevertheless, my character needs the reader to know why, by the end of this chapter, she is going to heed her Call to Adventure. Here is how her story starts:
Natasha Nikoslav had learned, by trial-and-error, which solvents erased vandalism best. Gasoline? Why, gas dissolved black paint with only a few swipes of a rag. Red paint, though…?

“Turpentine,” she muttered, and crossed the lawn to the garden shed in her back yard.

The canister, just inside the door, had a rag slung over it, still pungent from last time. Gathering both, Natasha plodded back to the scarlet scream on the front of her house:

Exodus 22:18
Now—was that so painful? What you see is Natasha having to clean up after vandals have struck her home, yet what you know is so much more, thanks to the backstory embedded there.

(Here's more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

2. When Backstory Justifies Character Motivation

In Leah Weiss’ excellent novel If The Creek Don’t Rise, Gladys has a voice that booms off the page; she is a ‘character’ in both word and deed. The reader is right to be uncertain as to how to feel about Gladys, yet just when her heartlessness seems too much to bear, Weiss masterfully injects just enough backstory to take you aback and not throw Gladys to the wolves (yet). Like here, when she’s considering how her newly married, and obviously pregnant, granddaughter has shown up in church with a fat lip, swollen eye, and long sleeves despite the heat:
…Grandgirl’s had a tough time of it lately, and it’s her own dern fault. She don’t have an ounce of gumption and her backbone’s wormy soft. She’s gotta look after herself better than this. I can’t do it for her. Nobody ever looked out for me.
Gladys’ callousness is cringe-worthy, and while the reader cannot necessarily condone it, that one little line of backstory at least allows the reader to understand it: ‘Nobody ever looked out for me.’ An entire history in six short words. 

(Here's more on We Have a History: Making Backstory Work for You)

3. When Backstory Relays Relationship Dynamics

Dyads, triads, and family dynamics can be challenging to convey, and all relationships are rooted in their own history. Knowing this, and understanding that I’ve chosen to manage a big cast within my current WIP, I am trying this passage to define a relationship between two brothers, and their mother:
Steve sucked on his cig, squinting at Owen’s tattoos through the smoke. “Mom’s always bitching that you’ve probably caught Hep from those goddamn things.”

“Yet she never carps about how you’ve likely got lung cancer.”

Steve took a drag and “Eh” lifted a shoulder. “She just knows which one of us to worry about.”

Worry. It wasn’t the right word and they both knew it. A flash of pity (or maybe it was just the cut of the sun) sailed through Steve’s eyes, then he said “You look healthy enough to me, though. Every time I see you I check to make sure you’ve still got that bit of gut.”

Owen’s stomach was flat. They both knew that too. Just like while to anyone watching it’d be hard to tell if that was a grimace or a smile wrapped around Steve’s smoke, Owen still knew. His brother was grinning. He grinned too. Steve always had been the only family worth coming home to.
Not much more (if anything) will need to be articulated about where Owen fits in his family—and why he’s so heavily invested in the well-being of his friends instead. 

(Here's more on Revealing a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory) 

4. Backstory Sometimes Defines A Character Better Than Action Can

The following passage of Roy Tupkin’s backstory, again from Weiss’ stunner, If The Creek Don’t Rise, is so vivid that you are in the moment—even though it is a memory. Here:
With her sass gone and death being a bitch, the only thing that looked like Mama was the rhinestone earrings she wore cause they looked almost real. She liked to say one of her boyfriends give em to her, but she stole em from the pharmacy rack and forgot I was there when she done it.
There is so much depth here—not only in terms of who Roy’s mother is, but also what sort of relationship she had (or, rather, didn’t have) with her son. 

(Here's more on Baby Got Backstory: Dealing With Backstory in Your Novel)

Now it is your turn. Have you written passages of backstory that are ‘keepers’? What makes them so? Share them so that we can all cheer each other on. Or maybe you have read passages of backstory in published fiction that you know made the story richer or better for being there. Share those too.

And write on!


Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”

1 comment:

  1. The three bears syndrome is iffy. It’s difficult to judge if there’s too much backstory, not enough, or when it’s just right.

    I recently gave the first half of my time-travel WIP mystery to two Beta readers who complained they weren’t clear on the specific paranormal rules of my ghost story, and wouldn’t read further if left as-is.

    While I am aware that every paranormal story has it’s own set of rules, I’d assumed I’d made mine perfectly clear in the opening sentence: [ It took me a lifetime to learn how to be a child, and now the restless girl in the painting is teaching me to be old. We have an arrangement. When the time comes, I’ve promised to take her place. ]

    It was my intention to be unclear as to the mental health of the protagonist in order to set several story questions in play. Was she hallucinating or has she been living with a ‘real’ ghost for all her adult life?

    I didn’t agree with the beta reader’s analysis, but I took the complaints to heart, and as an exercise, I wrote several new chapters of back story in which a reader could be left in no doubt as to what the ghost in my novel could do and why they’d showed up in the first place. These new chapters relate the inciting incident that occurred fifty years before the current story ‘begins’.

    I like the new opening, but it begs the issue, have I now offered too much back story?

    Since the two main characters were teenagers who met in 1965, and the story-proper picks up fifty-three years later, in 2018, I can rest assured there is no doubt as to where the aging protagonist stands, her immediate challenges, and a later inciting incident that upsets her sizeable apple cart. *The ghost she met in high school remains seventeen.

    While the additional back story better informs the story set in present day, it doesn’t distract from or alter the bigger inciting incident that arises in my original chapter one (now chapter six).

    There are apples everywhere… which, I believe, delivers a bigger mystery with bigger stakes. But then, I live in the rain forests of Vancouver Island where the bears love apples.