WRITING THE SERIES – THE NEED FOR BACKSTORY
For those of you who may not know, backstory is an integral part of most novels. Backstory is the history of either the character or the story itself. Each previous book in a series is backstory for the next. The question is how much backstory does the reader need to know to fully embrace the book they are reading. Where and how to include the backstory is a balancing act for many writers. I struggle with it constantly.
For the purpose of discussing backstory I would like to use an imaginary series, RUNNING WITH MARY SUE.
The flames could be viewed from the cliff. Mary Sue watched as her family’s manor house burnt to the ground. She threw the machete over the edge and heard it hit the rocks before it reached the ocean. Wiping her hands on her expensive formal gown, Mary Sue climbed into her twenty-year old Ford and turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway.
That is the opening paragraph of the second book in a series RUNNING WITH MARY SUE.
While reading the opening paragraph above it should be clear to the reader something must have happened before Mary Sue was standing on the cliff. The question is what? For the reader who had the opportunity to read the first book in this series the answer to that question is obvious. They remember how her father treated her like a useless twit and her mother dismissed her ambitions with the same callous disregard as she did the household staff. The reader was there with her when she found the machete in the shed.
Does the new reader to the series need to know the answer to their questions in paragraph one? I don’t think so, but let’s see what happens to the paragraph when I fill in the blanks with the backstory.
The flames could be viewed from the cliff and Mary Sue watched as her family’s manor house which she had doused in gasoline and thrown her lighter on burnt to the ground. As far as she was concerned her family and the house had to go in order for her to truly be free. Her father, Lord of the Manor, treated her as if she were a brainless doll whose only function in life was to make his wife and he look like the perfect parents with the perfect children. She was still holding the machete she had found in the shed the morning of her parent’s anniversary party. She tossed it over the edge and heard it hit the rocks before it reached the ocean. Wiping her hands on the expensive gown her mother insisted she wear instead of the one she created herself because it bore the label of well known designer, Mary Sue climbed into the old blue Ford clunker she brought with the proceeds of the few items she sold after her father refused to buy her another vehicle to crash and turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway.
What’s the difference between the two paragraphs? You might notice there is a difference of about a hundred and ninety words, but the important difference is the purpose of all the extra wordage. That’s the backstory.
Is all that backstory necessary for the new reader? Yes, at some point it will be important for the reader to know why she is an orphan and how she went from a privileged life to one of cheap motels. Is it important for the reader to know exactly what happened to her family on page one? No, I don’t believe so.
First, it is too much information too soon – better known as an info-dump. How she started the fire, what her father thought of her and why she is wearing that particular dress are all extraneous details in regard to what is happening at the moment.
Second, all the explaining slows down the pace of the paragraph. As the writer of the paragraph I want the reader to conjure up a certain image in their mine, that of a woman holding a deadly weapon dripping with blood, looking at a fire in the distance. That image gets diluted once you start picturing her in conflict with her parents.
Third, worse than a pacing issue, it takes away most of the mystery. A good mystery should unfold for the reader, not knock them over the head.
In the examples here, paragraph two gives a completely different feel to the novel. One might expect they are going to read a novel about a young woman who has finally broken free of the family chains that have been holding her back and is ready to make it in the real world on her own terms. While that might be an interesting read, I am a mystery writer so the first paragraph is more in tuned with the story to follow – a young woman has taken out her family, was she justified or crazy, will she get away with it?
Backstory does not only involve information which was divulged in the previous books, it also includes backstory which occurred before page one of book one. For example, in book one the reader might be shocked at Mary Sue’s father’s attitude towards her wrecked car, after all it was an accident and accidents happen. However, with a little backstory the reader has a bit more sympathy for the father and who wouldn’t when they find out this is her fifth totaled care in three years.
As the books in a series begin to pile up the little details of the previous books become less important. By book four the fact that Mary Sue killed her parents is still important, but how she did it in book one will seem less important compared to why she is being hunted for the death of the two FBI agents who were gunned down in book three.
While deciding where and when to weave in backstory is paramount to a good novel, it is just as significant to know what backstory to simply leave out. As a writer I make up a lot of background for both my character and the story itself. However, a lot of this information is just for me. Let me explain by using what I said before –
… who wouldn’t when they find out this is her fifth totaled car in three years.
Here is a rough sketch of how I might reveal this information.
The scene – After spending the night in the hospital for observation Mary Sue walks into her father’s office carrying the brochure for the new E-class convertible she picked up on her way home.
“Here daddy. This is what I want,” she said handing it to him before plopping herself down into the chair across from his desk. “But make sure it has the beige interior, not the black.”
“No,” he said handing it back to her without so much as a glance.
“No. What do you mean by no?”
“No means I am not buying you a new car,” he said. “That’s the fifth car you’ve totaled in three years. We’re done.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” she said sitting up straight in the car. “They cut me off.”
“How many times have you said that? Is it that they always cut you off or is it that you don’t know how to share the road?” he said finally looking up at his daughter.
That is really all the reader needs to know about the situation, as the writer I know a bit more. She has claimed being cut off on three out of five occasions – there was the time two lanes were merging and she tried to beat the truck – she lost and the most ridiculous time she claimed she was cut off she was rear ended – enough said. While all of this information might add a bit of humor to the story, it is not necessary, there will be plenty of opportunity for me to introduce my reader to the lovely ‘I’m entitled to do whatever I want, whenever I want it’ Mary Sue.
When writing a story I come up with a lot of background that will never be read. The only way for me to decide what needs to be included is to determine whether the story suffers from its exclusion. For me, as a reader, it drives me crazy when I spend time reading backstory that rips me out of the present, slows down the pace and has no significant impact on the story. I try to follow the old adage “When in doubt, leave it out!”
If you are a writer, how do you deal with backstory? If you are reader do you find sometimes all the backstory takes away from the story?