At the end of a tough day in the office I love to relax by binge watching TV spy shows on Netflix. I don’t usually choose the gritty realism characteristic of John Le Carre stories. I usually focus on the parts of the spectrum between Mission Impossible and Get Smart. (Alias and Chuck are current favorites.) One of the things I can count on is that in almost every episode someone will say, “That’s on a need to know basis,” and keep our hero from learning a key piece of information.
The phrase may have become a cliché, but it’s one that might help you handle the backstory for your novel. Characters have personal histories that are critical to understanding who they are and why they do what they do. They live in a specific time and place – a physical environment with a culture and history all its own. Your reader needs to understand both. How well you manage these elements of your story to help him do that will determine whether the book will engage him or not.
A good way to handle that management is to put the elements of your book’s backstory on a need to know basis. That means recognizing that there are things that you need to know about your backstory that you need to know that your readers don’t.
You need to know it all. After all, you as the author, need to create your book’s backstory. You write character profiles or histories in which you imagine the details of your characters’ lives up to the minute when they appear on page one (or maybe page 23). You sketch the details of the world you’ll build for your characters to live in. You understand the forces which have shaped them and will motivate their future actions. And then you begin your book.
You follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice and, “Start as close to the end as possible.” A lot of what you have created in preparation for the book’s opening happened before this moment. It’s backstory. How much of that backstory does your reader need to know?
A lot less than you do.
One of the quickest ways to kill a story before it gets started is with an info-dump giving the reader all of the backstory.
As super literary agent Al Zuckerman warns in his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel, “Inexperienced writers will sometimes dive into the past almost immediately after introducing a character and before solidly engaging the reader in what is at stake for the character in the present.”
Think of the details of backstory as something to be rationed. In the 19th century a novelist might stop the book’s action for an exhaustive two page description. No more. This is an age of quick cuts where a few carefully chosen details vividly suggest a whole world. Remember, you don’t need to recount every particular of a setting, you need only to give your description of the place verisimilitude - the appearance of truth. A reader doesn’t need to know every detail of a character’s life just those details that will help him understand why the character behaves as he does at this moment in the story. Minimalism is often the key to effective backstory. Give the reader just enough.
To determine how much that is, ask yourself two questions:
- What details of the backstory does my reader need to know to understand events in my story’s present?
- When does the reader need to know them?
By providing only the details essential to make a scene convincing you focus on what is important, your book’s ongoing action while convincing your reader of the story’s ultimate reality.