Writing Backstory

There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website written by Jenna Kernan in which she says, “How much backstory is too much backstory, and how do we know when we haven’t given enough?”

Jenna Kernan

‘Bestselling author Jenna Kernan writes gripping domestic thrillers. Her 2021 release, A Killer’s Daughter, won the bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards in the popular fiction category and her next release, The Adoption, arrives in May 2022 and features a couple whose adoption goes from blissful to terrifying when a dark secret and menacing stranger threaten the baby.’

Ms Kernan says, “My upcoming domestic thriller, The Adoption, has a complicated backstory. That got me thinking how best to weave all those interesting, life-changing events from the past into the book. These experiences proved pivotal in the thriller, but how to reveal the past for the biggest punch in the present?

1. Don’t relate more than the briefest backstory in the first chapter because you need to create momentum, and backstory will stop progress dead. Too much too early can halt the main plot. Also, the reader won’t care about all those details until you’ve established empathy for and curiosity about your protagonist.

2. Do avoid dropping a block of backstory as introspection, where the protagonist is deep in thought. Consider dribbling in backstory, drop-by-drop, like a drip coffee maker. I know of one popular author who writes out the entire traumatic experience of each protagonist in real time, including dialogue. After she has this all-important, pivotal, life-shaping, worldview-shifting scene, she breaks it into tiny pieces and inserts it as internal thought at critical times in the first half of the story. It works and keeps the narrative moving. So, consider breaking up the flashback and weaving it into several scenes for greater impact.

3. Don’t forget that introspection is only one way to introduce backstory. Other options are dialogue and action.

4. Do use actions to present core beliefs forged in the past. Does your character repeatedly check the front door lock as they recall a traumatic experience with a home invasion?

5. Don’t skimp on the use of discourse to reveal backstory. A conversation or argument is an interesting way to reveal a character’s past. Dialogue amps up the conflict more effectively than a slap. Who can forget the plot shifting backstory dialogue, “Luke I am your father?”

6. Do show a character holds a certain mistaken core belief because of a past trauma or life-shaping event. Such backstory details can make irrational actions believable. In fact, if you want a character to adopt a particular conviction, creating the right past experience is critical. Your characters come to situations holding certain core beliefs and assumptions and will respond accordingly. A person attacked by a strange dog might assume all big dogs are dangerous unless additional life-experiences oppose this belief and cause the character to change, for example, by meeting several lovely, gentle big dogs.

7. Don’t make the backstory more compelling than the forward story. The backstory creates the character’s worldview, their belief system, and the mistaken belief which will change as they experience their journey. But the past isn’t the story, or it should be told in real time.

8. Do consider using a flashback for a longer backstory incident which relates to the forward narrative. Some writers avoid flashbacks, others use them to great effect.

9. Don’t create details which do not affect the narrative or aren’t needed to understand the story or your protagonist’s motivation and beliefs. Remember, not everything which happened in a protagonist’s past applies to the main plot. If there is no dog in your story, you don’t need to have the protagonist mention he hates them unless this is the reason for the fight with his dog-loving girlfriend.

10. Do relate backstory naturally, avoiding contrived reveals. You know, those scenes when one character explains something which another character already knows for the sole purpose of disclosing this information to the reader. “Remember when we were attacked by that bear, and it tore your arm off?” The reader might be thinking, “Oh, so that’s how that arm came off!” and then, “Wait a minute, that other character should definitely know that without being reminded.” Two characters talking about stuff they clearly already know is an awkward way to deliver backstory, so avoid it when possible.

11. Don’t let anyone tell you backstory shouldn’t be in your story. It might well be the most important part of your characterization.

12. Just do be conscientious about how, where, and why you include backstory.

This all very good advice. Backstory can be vital to a vibrant story, if just enough is revealed. Too much becomes a distraction. I should add that there is another way to tell backstory apart from introspection, dialogue and action. It can also be told through research on the Internet or the media.

Review: Me and White Supremacy

I was attracted to this book by a favourable review and by it having been on the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was written by Layla F Saad, “who is a writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change. As a East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born in and grew up in the UK and currently lives in Qatar, Layla has always sat at a unique intersection of identities from which she us able to draw rich and intriguing perspectives.”

The book cover

You’ll notice the subtitle, “How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”. Before I opened the book, I didn’t expect to learn a great deal from it, but I do recognise my privilege, having grown up in an environment of private education. And I think it is fair to say that my mother and grandparents were racist. I never accepted my mother’s views, or the views of my Navy colleagues who were white, Southern officers. I felt they were wrong, but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t ‘call them out’.

Ms Saad’s book is very well organised. After several chapters which lay the groundwork very clearly and well, the book has a chapter-a-day format for four weeks. In each chapter, a particular aspect of white supremacy is described in depth. There is a chapter, for example, on white fragility in which the action is explained, examples are given, when it shows up, why it’s important to understand it, and some searching questions for the reader on his/her experience and understanding of white fragility. The reader is asked to write their answers in a journal. For me the number of actions which make up white supremacy is astonishing. Many of them, like tone policing, I never heard of before, but I could see how each action contributed to the white supremacy structure.

Toward the end of the book, Ms Saad begins to move the reader gradually toward action, with chapters like, You and Your Friends, You and Your Family, You and Your Values, You and Losing Privilege, You and Your Commitments. She lists a number of possible commitments. One, for example, is “I am committed to my lifelong antiracist education by . . .” There is also a section toward the end of the book that deals with how groups should work through the book together.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its persuasiveness. Ms Saad’s tone is friendly, factual, clear and certain. She knows what is wrong and how to correct it. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It should be required reading for every sensible white person.