Monday, February 9, 2009

BACKSTORY: Let your characters talk about it

BACKSTORY: Let your characters talk about it

From the backstoried mind of Earl Staggs

It’s hard to write without backstory. If past events have a bearing on the current story, we have to tell the reader about it. If something in a character’s history is important to how that character deals with events in the present, we have to give that history to the reader. Yet, if we bore our readers with a long narrative retelling of the past, they may toss our book and move on to someone else’s.

My favorite method of presenting backstory is through dialogue between characters. Instead of letting my narrator stop the story to tell readers about something that happened before, I like to let my characters talk about it.

As an example, the following is a scene from my novel, MEMORY OF A MURDER. Adam Kingston is the protagonist, but he does not appear in this scene. Instead, two other characters talk about him. Adam is a private investigator with certain psychic abilities. I modeled Adam after real-life psychics who use their gift to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes. Their psychic gift does not actually solve crimes, but often provide clues which lead the police in the right direction. So it is with Adam. In the end, it comes down to solid, old-fashioned police work.

I wanted readers to know some of Adam’s backstory, but rather than let the narrator do it, I did it in a conversation between two other characters.

The characters in the scene are:

Brenda McCort: A homicide detective from Baltimore. She has followed a killer’s trail to Ocean City, Maryland, where Adam lives. She believes the killer is now in Ocean City after seeing a report of a similar killing there. She also has another case back home and feels Adam Kingston has information about that one. She is anxious to talk to him about it.

Stuart Wilson: A young (thirty-ish) Ocean City police detective. He and Adam had a confrontation with the killer the night before and Adam saved Stuart’s life.

The two detectives are in Stuart’s office and after discussing the similarities in the killings, agree the same man is responsible for them.

NOTE: A scene doesn’t have to have only one purpose, does it? In addition to bringing out Adam’s backstory, I tried to do some other things in this scene. I’ll talk more about them after you’ve read the scene.


Detective Wilson looked across his desk. "There's no doubt in my mind. It's him."
He'd been strictly business in their exchange of information since Brenda McCort arrived, but he couldn't help wondering if the attractive homicide detective from Baltimore was involved with anyone. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring and she wasn't that much older. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, tops. Dressed nice. Conservative, but nice. Dark blue blazer, gray skirt, white blouse.
She nodded. "I hope we can stop him before he fills any more trash bags with dead bodies." She sat with her legs crossed, holding an attaché case on her lap.
"We'll get him," he said, thinking she had great legs. He smiled at her, making it a smile of confidence and determination, nothing arrogant or cocky. He could ask her out to dinner. Professional courtesy and all that.
Brenda looked at her watch. "It's nearly four o'clock. Didn't you say Kingston was coming in?"
"He said he'd be here at three," Stuart said, wondering if he'd used the wrong smile. "I'm sure he'll show, but I don't think he can tell you any more about last night than I already have."
"Oh, I'm sure he can't," she said. "It's about another case. He may have information on it."
"Anything I can help you with?"
"No, but thanks, anyway. Tell me, though. What do you know about him?"
"I didn't know anything about him until last night. Some of the older guys heard me mention his name and filled me in on his background. We even have a file on him."
Brenda's eyebrows raised. "Oh?"
Stuart waved a hand and chuckled. "Not that kind of file. He's a consultant, a psychic investigator. He works mostly with the Feds, but our department called on him once to help find a missing child. As a matter of fact, he was an FBI agent himself. One of the best, they say."
"So one day he decided to give all that up and buy himself a crystal ball?"
"I'm not sure how that came about," Stuart said, curious about the sarcasm in her voice. "The way I heard it, a few years ago, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Terminal. He took a leave of absence from the Bureau to take care of her. When his wife died, he took it hard. Started drinking, big time. One night his car took out a utility pole and he was nearly killed."
"You got all this from a consultant's file?"
He shook his head. "No. From Martha."
He laughed. "Yeah, Martha, the lady who runs Records. She's been here forever. Martha knows everything and forgets nothing. With her around, we don't need a computer." He laughed again, hoping she would laugh with him. When she didn't, he continued. "Anyway, when I asked Martha to bring up his file, she told me the story behind the story, as they say. When Kingston hit the utility pole, some electric wires came loose and, according to her, he took enough volts to kill an elephant. They didn't expect him to live through it. He did, but he never went back to the Feds."
"Maybe he decided being a psychic was more lucrative."
"Martha's into things like that—UFO's, paranormal stuff, ESP—and she said things like electric shock can sometimes bring out special abilities. But . . . why do I get the feeling you're not a big fan of psychics?"
"Let's say I had a bad experience. But let me ask you something, Detective Wilson—"
He held up his hand. "It's Stuart." He tried the smile again.
She smiled back. "Okay, Stuart, tell me the truth. Do you believe in it, that psychic business?"
"To be honest, I've never thought much about it one way or the other." He was thinking she had a great smile and wondering if it was too late to get a dinner reservation at the Del-Mar Inn. "But I can tell you this much—you remember that multiple homicide in Arizona a few weeks ago?"
She nodded. "The FBI cracked it. A tough one."
"He was in on it and they gave him practically all the credit. You know the Feds. They don't usually give credit to anybody."
Brenda's smile was gone. "Everybody gets lucky once in a while." She checked her watch again. "So where is he?"
Stuart shrugged. "I wish I knew." He examined his own watch and decided to go for it. "By the way, if you don't have any plans for—"
The ringing of his telephone cut him off.
"Excuse me." He picked it up and said, "Wilson." He listened for a moment, then looked at Brenda. "It's the State Police—about Adam Kingston."


So that’s how I built Adam’s backstory into the novel. But, as I mentioned before, I tried to do some other things in the scene in the way of character development for Brenda and Stuart as well as foreshadowing of things to come.

For example, while Stuart is serious about his job, he’s also a bit flirtatious and appreciates an attractive woman with a great pair of legs. He’s also impressed with Adam’s accomplishments, particularly that the FBI holds him in such high regard.

Brenda is all business, but you might have noticed her negative view of psychics. In a previous chapter, she said they were all quacks. This sets up some tension between her and Adam and sparks fly when they meet in a scene shortly after this one.

There are other methods of including backstory and I’ve used them all. Another favorite of mine is a special form of flashback which I call “backflash.” Maybe I’ll talk about that next time.

Earl Staggs
MEMORY OF A MURDER earned 12 Five Star reviews on Amazon and B&N.
Want a signed copy? Want to read Chapter One for free first? Write me.


Dana Fredsti said...

I've always tried to have the backstory for characters firmly in my head so info slips out naturally during the narrative and dialogue. Sometimes it works, other times... it takes MORE work.

Earl Staggs said...

Dana, I think the most common mistake writers make is to load a lot of narrative and backstory in their story, particularly at the beginning. A lot of readers skip over narrative to get to the action and dialogue is action (the act of people talking). That's why I prefer to present backstory in dialogue between characters whenever possible.