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Friday, June 12, 2009

Tips for How to Present Backstory

Even if you don't present backstory in the first chapter of a novel, you have to present at some time in the book. But there are a few tricks you can use to make that backstory as emotionally compelling as possible. I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101.

Tips for How to Present Backstory

Make a Character’s Past History Compelling

Here are some good tricks to use when writing backstory in a novel so that the reader is intrigued by the information.

The key to presenting backstory in a way that is interesting to a reader boils down to one piece of advice: Make the reader want to know the information.

As a reader gets to know the characters and become interested in them, she will naturally want to know more about them. But even beyond this natural interest, up the stakes. Make the past important to the reader because it ties together mysterious threads of the current action.

Dole Out Backstory in Bits and Pieces

When information is given out slowly, here and there, the “clues” increase reader interest. One piece of information will spark the reader’s curiosity, and further bits of information will reveal a larger view of the story “picture.”

For example, a hero’s mother was killed in the library with a pitchfork, and the hero thinks his father did it.

A writer could baldly “tell” the reader this in narrative, but it’s boring and can smack of amateur writing. You also want to be more clever than disguising it as expository dialogue: “As you know, father, mother was killed in the library with a pitchfork and I think you did it.”

Instead, dole the pieces of the story out here and there. In chapter two, the hero walks past the library and can’t help shivering in response. In chapter five, he happens on an old picture of his mother and misses her. In chapter seven, the sight of a pitchfork makes his gut roil. In chapter ten, in an argument with his father, he shouts, “We both know what you did at the library that night.” In chapter twelve, a ranch hand tells the heroine, “The pitchfork has been missing since the night his mother died.”

The pieces of information collect into a horrifying whole by the middle of the book, and the reader keeps reading to find out what happened that night in the library.

Make the Information Vital for a Character to Have

A writer can make protagonist need to know a certain piece of information in order to accomplish his goal for the book.

Make the information absolutely vital. Increase the stakes so that the protagonist has more to lose if he doesn’t get that information.

As the reader follows the hero, because the hero needs the information, the reader begins to need the information, too. The protagonist’s desires infuse the reader as she turns pages, anxious to know what happens next.

Make a Character Fight to Acquire the Information

When a character struggles to acquire information, it not only adds conflict to the story, it defers resolution, which keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.

People are not typically blabber mouths, especially when it comes to secrets. Therefore, a character who simply delivers information when asked for it might not seem very realistic. It also may make the character seem unintelligent. At the very least, it’s a missed opportunity to infuse more conflict into the story.

On the other hand, if a protagonist has to struggle to pry information from a reticent character, the reader is struggling with the protagonist. The struggle makes the information eventually won that much sweeter for both the protagonist and the reader.

Keep the Reader Wanting More

Even after some information is doled out, keep some information back. Make a character be vague or refuse to say any more. Keep a thread of information dangling. Make the reader keep needing to know more until the dramatic climax.

It will keep the reader turning pages.

4 comments:

  1. I think I'm going to bookmark that article. That's an excellent list of how to incorporate dialogue. I just finished reading Reclaiming Nick by Susan May Warren. She gives little hints of backstory out in the beginning of the novel. Just enough to make me say, "What's going on here?" and want to keep reading. :)

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  2. Thanks, Katie! I love Susan May Warren!
    Camy

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  3. Camy, great advice on the use of backstory.

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