Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Hidden Danger Backstory Poses for Writers (And It’s Not the One You Think)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Uncovering backstory isn’t the same as plot, and focusing too much on the story’s past can hurt your novel’s future.

One of the very first outlines for my urban fantasy novel, Blood Ties, focused on revealing the twist and secrets of the novel. It was mostly about how readers were going to learn all the cool things I’d created and less about a character struggling with a problem. Which was a problem, since struggling with problems is what makes a novel a novel.

Weak as that early outline was, writing it was worth it, since it helped me figure out those backstories and secrets. It also made it obvious that I’d outlined a novel that didn’t truly have a plot. Sure, my protagonist had goals and she acted to achieve them and did all the things a good protagonist is supposed to do, but if I’d written the story to that first outline, it would have been terrible.

The quest to reveal backstory can feel like plot, but it’s not plot.

I can hear some of you saying, “But wait! Mysteries are all about revealing backstory and that’s the plot.”

Yes, but also no. Mysteries are about revealing a secret. Discovering what someone did and how they did it. Even uncovering the motivation behind their actions. They’re intellectual puzzles and the “big secret” is why readers pick them up.

Revealing backstory isn’t the same as revealing secrets. And that’s a critical distinction.

In a mystery—or any story where the conflict stems from something unknown—the protagonist is driven to uncover that information in order to solve a problem that affects them in a negative way. Solve a crime. Prove or disprove a cheating spouse. Understand why a loved one committed suicide. Revealing the secrets is a goal of the protagonist and learning them has consequences and ramifications to the characters and the plot.

I’m not talking about those novels, because…

A secret that directly caused the plot is different from a backstory that explains how the current situation came to be.

A protagonist who goes through the story in search of “the truth” is a fairly common concept. Besides being the core of a mystery, it’s a big part of many character-driven tales, and a theme in countless novels.

I’m not suggesting we never reveal backstory. Revealing backstory has its place, and many stories are improved by discovering more about the characters and worlds.

The problem comes when we create deep backstories and draft novels that rely solely on uncovering the history of something, and that’s what the entire story focuses on.

It’s no longer a protagonist trying to solve a problem, but a protagonist wandering around “learning new information” and “revealing the truth.” In a mystery, “learning the truth” has a greater purpose than just learning it. That truth or history has a direct correlation and is often the cause of the crime the protagonist is trying to solve. Discovering backstory actually affects the protagonist’s choices and what they decide to do in the story, which can change how the plot unfolds.

Simply “learning the truth” isn’t enough for most readers.

There’s a difference between a proactive protagonist with agency who’s investigating a problem and searching for answers, and a protagonist who goes from person to person and is told things about the past that may or may not apply to the current problem.

One drives the plot through actions and motivations, the other is the device the author uses to explain why there’s a problem and how it got that way.

The author cares about those secrets and backstories because they created them. You see how they matter and why they’re important to the characters. But readers don’t. They just see an endless string of scenes about a character who goes from person to person and place to place and learns things that happened (usually) long before the story started.

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

Revealing backstory doesn’t typically drive the plot.

Few readers (if any), pick up a novel because they think, “Gee, I want to know why magic was banned from this land under the Dark Lord’s rule,” or “I want to know what happened to this guy’s mom forty years ago.” They may want to know that eventually, but it’s not why they picked up the novel.

Which sounds more interesting:

  • A man discovers his mother was a stripper to make ends meet after she graduated from high school, and it changes the way he thinks about her
  • A man struggling to win a promotion in a company obsessed with social class learns his mother was a teen-aged stripper—a secret his rival would viciously exploit if discovered.

One is just “a guy learns about his mother’s past” while the other has a conflict made worse by the discovery and revelation of the secret. And that’s the difference between revealing backstory and uncovering backstory that affects the plot.

The protagonist has a problem first, and a backstory discovery second.

Unless the story is about the search to uncover the backstory, readers don’t care what happened in the past until it matters to the scene. They want to know how the protagonist is going to solve the novel’s problem.

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

And here’s why. There’s little conflict or stakes in backstory.

This is a big reason why so much advice says to cut all backstory. It’s history, so it seldom has any conflict or stakes associated with it, aside from “we must never learn this information.” And that isn’t enough in most cases, because learning it is exactly why the author put in it there. So the “threat” of revealing it doesn’t usually pay off for readers.

However, if written well, a backstory reveal that does affect the plot and change a character can be powerful. Learning a piece of history that creates conflict or greater stakes in the protagonist’s life, can complicate the problem and cause trouble—and that’s a good thing.

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

To clarify one last time…Backstory can enhance a novel when it does more than just explain the history of someone or something in the story. It can indeed be used to enhance conflict and deepen a story when it causes the protagonist or other characters to change how they act, think, or feel about the novel’s conflict or other characters in the story.

But if the entire point of the novel is to discover that backstory, and all it accomplishes is informing readers about the past, there’s a good chance the novel is missing the conflict that will drive the plot and engage the reader.

If you’re worried you’ve fallen into the backstory trap, consider how your story would change if you didn’t reveal the backstory (It can still be part of the history, just not shown to readers). How would that affect the plot? The protagonist’s goals? The stakes? The conflict? Is there still a point to the novel? If not, that’s a red flag the novel might be about the backstory and not about a protagonist solving a problem.

Does the backstory in your novel affect the characters and their choices, or does it just inform readers of the past?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

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.

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

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Too true. It's too easy to think of backstory as "something interesting that got us here," and forget that what matters is still the "here" and how it affects that.

    --How do we know that "here" is the priority? Because we chose it to be, by making it the story. If the divorces or wars or secrets before that really meant as much, the story would be set then.

    So backstory can be as interesting as it wants to be (and probably should), but we've defined the story so that backstory is there to *influence* it in the Now, not take it over. The rest is just sharpening that relationship, and giving that stripper's son a life and a discovery that gives his past some kick.

    1. Well said. Influence is the key there. Great backstory influences the story, world, and conflict (and lots more). If we don't have that in our backstory, we probably have a problem.

  2. I just put down a novel (that had rave reviews) after 35 pages because it was all backstory. Oh, and Protagonist 1 was whining about being a regular girl at rich college while Protagonist 2 whined about being an over protected rich teenager. *Yawn* Supposedly some great secret was going to evolve from these two, but I couldn't hang around to find out

    1. Great example of how it can hurt a novel. Reader tastes vary (obviously), but most of them want a story that goes somewhere, not gives a history lecture before the story can start.

    Surely the protagonist going round asking questions to find stuff out being a 'no no' doesn't apply to crime fiction? After all that is how an investigation works. Yes there is physical evidence to be discovered but the investigator can only learn what a witness saw by asking questions and listening to the responses.

    1. Correct, and that was one of my exceptions :) There's also a difference between finding out what happened in the past and revealing backstory. For example, in crime fiction or mysteries, the past typically plays a role in the crime itself somehow. But just "revealing backstory" wouldn't have affected the crime at all, or very little about it. That's the danger.

      Basically, if the backstory directly affects/moves the plot and core conflict, odds are it's fine and a useful part of the story. If the story is nothing more than a setup to reveal the backstory, and revealing the backstory was the point (no real plot or conflict connected to it), then it's very likely hurting the story.