In some ways, these are two separate topics but, for the purposes of this post, I want to address them together. I hope it will all make sense to you by the end!
So, backstory. The books I read as a kid were all about the backstory. If you’ve read The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, you know what I mean. Those first few pages that always told you everybody’s name and age and hair colour and how they came to be in the story. I’m not dissing these stories – without them I would have run out of books to read! – but I did start to skip those parts of the books pretty early on.
I was recently interviewed for my local paper (yay! Kitchissippi Times!) and the writer, Denise, asked me about backstory. My answer was that I believe we should get to know characters in a book the way we get to know new people in our lives. Generally, this is slowly, gradually and naturally. First we’re introduced, so we know their name. If it’s somebody in a school / activity setting, we might then find out who their kids are. After some time we might find out where they live or what their job is. After a while of knowing them, they may start to reveal some personal opinions – maybe they strike up a conversation about Senate reform … or the Senators – either way, very telling. Then, usually after some significant time / acquaintance, if they’re going to be a friend, we might get to know something difficult about them. Their child has a learning disability. They have experienced a significant illness. They’re in the process of separating from their spouse.
This is the way most real relationships develop. And in this way, we gradually form opinions about that person. Sometimes, with a certain revelation, we may modify our opinion about that person. I think, as much as possible, we should get to know characters in a book in the same way, and, it’s important for writers to let the reader get to know the characters – form their own opinions and change them as the story grows.
A few weeks ago I bookmarked a Q&A piece with the writers of The Good Wife. I really enjoy this show. I think the writing is fascinating, so I was interested to see what the writers had to say. This question, in particular interested me:
Can we get some backstory as to what exactly Alicia and Will had at Georgetown and why she fell for Peter?
And the answer was, I thought, really instructive:
Well … the backstory exists. The only way we can write characters is to know what happened to them. But the backstory is boring without some dramatic rationale for its regurgitation. It needs a pressing need within the plot. To use an example: There was a lot of what you might call backstory in the John Noble episode about his character, but what made it not play as backstory was that there was a pressing need for it: Alicia needed to review her time with John Noble to find out who the killer was.
They also go on to point out that, if they tell you the backstory now – just for the sake of it, but before it’s essential to the forward momentum of the story – then it’s done. It is what it is. The term they use is that it’s “baked” into the story. Then, in the future, if they ever need to make a different twist or turn, they either always need to be faithful to the backstory already revealed, or they have to ignore it and change it, which soap operas don’t seem to mind doing but isn’t really the hallmark of great storytelling (and readers / viewers tend to find it annoying and disingenuous). Something to keep in mind if you think your story might ever be a series. You might want that leeway down the road.
Turns out this backstory post alone is long enough without me getting into “Starting in the Right Place” today. I’ll pick that up in a later post and reference back to this one.
Today’s recommended takeaway? “Backstory is boring without some dramatic rationale for its regurgitation” – courtesy of the minds behind The Good Wife.