The Goldilocks Element: Backstory

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, May 2012.]

Goldilocks as Writing Guidance

We all know the cautionary tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears:  “Goldilocks entered the cottage and found three bowls of porridge on the table.  She tasted the first bowl and found that it was too hot.  She tasted the second and found that it was too cold.  She tasted the third bowl, and it was just right, so she happily ate it all up.”

As authors, we know the feeling of “just right” – the perfect balance between too much and too little.  One of the greatest challenges in writing, though, is finding the perfect balance for backstory.  By balancing our narrative tools, though, and by keeping a few writing rules in mind, we can always provide just the right amount of backstory in our novels, keeping our readers happily devouring our work.

What is Backstory?

Backstory is everything that happens before your novel officially starts.  It’s the sum of your characters’ lives before the events that form the particular story that you’re telling.

As authors, we invest a lot of time and effort in creating our characters’ backstories.  Some authors write elaborate character outlines, completing pages and pages of description about fictional childhoods, tempestuous adolescences, traumatic adult lives.  Even the hastiest author has likely considered a character’s early wounds, the personal challenges he or she must work out in the novel.  Backstory can be seductive to authors – it is comfortable, familiar, known.

Alas, backstory can easily trip us up.  If we provide too many details, we chance losing our readers, bogging them down in minutiae before we ever reach the exciting character and plot elements that are unique to our stories.  If we ignore backstory entirely, though, our novels exist in a vacuum, without the details that make good characters, settings, and plots come alive.

Many elements of carefully crafted backstory are likely unimportant for the novel at hand.  For example, the fact that your character ate oatmeal for breakfast every morning of her childhood would ordinarily be unlikely to figure into your current story.  Occasionally, though, some backstory element becomes vitally important.  In our oatmeal example, our heroine’s childhood oatmeal trauma might have led her to become a food entrepreneur.  She might plan on launching a new brand of organic muesli, only to have her business plan nearly foiled by a hero who works for a giant food conglomerate.

Traditional Methods of Visiting the Past

Backstory can be introduced into a novel in many ways.  In fact, most skilled authors combine several methods to convey a maximum amount of information with a minimal intrusion to the main storytelling.  Common methods include:

Prologue:  A prologue is a chapter that precedes the main story, setting forth action that happened before Day One of the novel.  Some editors disfavor prologues because they delay readers from getting into a story.  With a prologue, readers invest time and energy to meet one or more characters in a specific milieu.  When the prologue ends, though, and the main narration picks up at a different time and place, readers can feel cheated, as if they over-invested in the prologue material.

Prologues are, however, common in some romance sub-genres, including category romantic suspense and paranormal romance.  Those prologues are generally short (1000 – 1500 words), representing less than half of a standard chapter.

Flashback:  Flashbacks are sections of narration where a character remembers the past as if it is happening in the present.  For example:

Goldi blinked, and she was back in her mother’s kitchen.  There was the same pottery bowl she had eaten from every morning.  The same canister of oats.  The same plate of nasty, dried-up raisins.

Her mother wandered into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of nicotine and smoke.  “Eat up, Goldi, girl.  That’s all we have to stick to your ribs today.”

Goldi choked down a spoonful of the vile glop.  She vowed that she would never eat oatmeal when she was a grown-up.  When she could control her own life. 

Flashbacks should be used sparingly.  They can be jarring for a reader, pulling one out of a story with a jolt (especially if the flashback is not set off from the main text by use of a different font.)

A few brave authors have tried to include flashbacks within flashbacks, forcing readers to track three different timelines at once.  Absent extreme demands of a particular plot, character, or setting, authors should avoid embedded flashbacks.

Narrative Summary:  Narrative summaries are sections of text written in the main timeline of the story, where a character looks back at the past.  For example:

Goldi thought back to the breakfast she had eaten every morning of her childhood – the same lumpy cereal, the same nasty, dried-up old raisins.  She could still remember the stink of nicotine as her mother wandered into the kitchen.  What had her mother said, every single morning?  “Eat up, Goldi, girl.  That’s all we have to stick to your ribs today.”  It had been all she could do, to choke down a spoonful of the vile glop.  Even as a child, she had vowed that she would never eat oatmeal when she was a grown-up.  When she could control her own life.

Generally speaking, narrative summary is less jarring for readers to absorb.  Gentler than a full-blown flashback, narration does not fully transport readers into a different timeline.  Authors, though, should pay close attention to their verb tenses, particularly to helping verbs, to make sure that the narrative summary is clear.

Dialogue:  Writers can fold backstory into dialogue, revealing it line by line as characters talk to one another.  For example:

Goldi shook Prince’s hand.  “I can’t believe you actually work for Cereal Megacorp!  I ate your oatmeal every single morning when I was growing up.”

“I hope you won’t hold that against me,” he joked.

“No.  Megacorp was only responsible for the lumpy cereal.  The nasty, dried-up raisins were my mother’s fault.  I can still hear her, talking around her morning cigarette:  ‘Eat up, Goldi, girl.  That’s all we have to stick to your ribs today.'”

He winced.  “Maybe I should leave the conference room and try coming in again.”

She realized that he might have interpreted her words as unprofessional.  Goldi sat straighter in the leather executive chair and said, “That oatmeal was good for me.  It made me vow that I would control my own life, once I was a grownup.”

Dialogue can be deceptive.  It’s a useful tool for conveying a lot of information in a relatively short space.  Nevertheless, dialogue will ring false – especially when it’s forced to carry the heavy burden of backstory – when characters fail to speak with their own unique vocabularies.

Moreover, authors can be tempted to convey backstory in dialogue using false constructs.  One character should never start divulging backstory with a phrase like, “As you know, Bob…”  (If Bob truly knew the information, then there would be no reason to have the conversation.)

Putting Backstory on a Diet

With so many potential pitfalls, how can a writer manage backstory effectively?  The key is limitation.  Authors should strive to include the least possible amount of backstory in everything they write.

Relevance:  When including backstory, every last detail should be relevant to the narration of the main story.  In the examples quoted above, Goldi’s aversion to lumpy porridge and desiccated raisins should directly inform her decision to make organic muesli.  She might worry that she has a weight problem (too much oatmeal sticking to her ribs over too many years.)  She might despise smoking as a habit, a belief that is tested when she catches the hero smoking a celebratory cigar after a business victory.

In summary, every single word of the conveyed backstory should matter.  If not, cut out the details.

Length:  Even after you have determined that an element of backstory is necessary, fight to keep the revelation of that information short.  Backstory is not the place to exercise your powers of description, your veritable thesaurus of phrases, your encyclopedic knowledge of your setting.

Think of backstory as a brake that you are applying to your narration.  For the entire time that you are informing your readers of something that happened in the past, you are keeping them from moving forward, from being engaged with your characters, from falling in love with your novel.  If a single sentence will convey all the necessary background information, than limit yourself to that single sentence.  If your prologue can be reduced to one page, then reduce it.

Location:  Like adjectives and adverbs, backstory becomes much more noticeable when it is placed next to other backstory.  Consider whether you need to divulge each element of backstory at that particular point of your novel.  In the examples above, is it necessary to know that Goldi ate terrible oatmeal at the same time that we learn that her mother smoked, at the same time that we learn that Goldi vowed to become independent?

Chances are, we only need one of those elements at that precise narrative juncture.  Spreading out backstory actually engages readers with the past.  It builds a sort of mystery, a challenge to figure out what exactly has gone before.  Ideally, a reader should receive each element of backstory with a sigh of relief and an excited eagerness to see how the characters will react to the newly gleaned information.

Practice Makes Perfect

Planting appropriate amounts of backstory at satisfactory intervals and using proper narrative tools can be an author’s greatest challenge.  Fortunately, there are ways to practice the skill.

Character Sketches:  As mentioned above, many authors create extensive character sketches prior to writing a novel.  For purposes of practicing your backstory, challenge yourself to create a new type of character sketch.  Record only those character elements that are vital for the current story.  Rank those elements, in terms of importance.  Consider where you can seed those elements into the main narrative, planting the least important items first, then the more important ones, ending with the final element that makes the entire character make sense.

This exercise will help you to identify the elements of backstory that are truly important.  It will help you to spread out those elements throughout your work, rather than “clumping” them in awkward character introductions.

Playwriting 101:  As a writing exercise, force yourself to convey all backstory through dialogue.  Focus on the particular tone of your characters; make sure they remain true to themselves as they convey the information you need them to convey.  Attempt to write all backstory-heavy scenes with no “stage direction”, with no additional language to supplement the spoken words.

This exercise will help you to verify that backstory is indeed central to your characters and their plot.  If your characters can’t discuss their backstory with words that are natural to them, then consider whether they actually need to have those elements in their background.  (Note:  Your characters may be unhappy or uncomfortable with their backstory, but they should understand it, in the fibers of their being.)

Penny For Your Thoughts:  At the beginning of a chapter, grant yourself a total of ten cents that you can spend on backstory.  Each time you divulge an element of a character’s past, remove one of the pennies from your stash.  When you have depleted your money, write the rest of the chapter without including any new elements of backstory.

This exercise will help you to quantify how much backstory you include in your narration.  It will also help you to spot “infodumps”, massive quantities of backstory delivered at one time.

Highlight the Past:  Using a highlighter pen, work through the opening chapters of your novel, marking each use of backstory.  After completing your mark-up, review the manuscript, paying attention to sections that are extensively highlighted.  Consider using alternate methods for presenting backstory, focusing on whether every single fact is vitally important at that stage of the narration.  Delete or move backstory, based on what you discover.  Ideally, you can work this exercise with your entire manuscript, leaving time between the marking up and the reviewing of the highlighting.

This exercise leaves you with a literal roadmap of backstory trouble spots in your manuscript.

Backstory is vitally important to storytelling.  Without backstory, our novels would have no context, no resonance.  Our Black Moments would fade to gray, and our Happy Ever Afters would cease to have any lasting satisfaction.  Nevertheless, it is our goal as authors to limit the backstory, to keep our novels striding forward so that our readers can truly fall in love with our heroes and heroines.