Ever since I started writing, I’ve been forewarned about the disastrous side effects of backstory. I know it’s essential to any story line, so I’ve taken the skeptics words to mean use it as little as possible, drop tidbits of the past only into the present, keep it low-key, and, when possible, keep it out.
I can practice the advice in short stories, but in writing my debut novel I had to break a few rules to keep the plot line intact. I remember treading cautiously into this minefield called backstory, keeping the naysayer warnings front and center in my mind.
In my work in progress, avoiding backstory has turned out to be impossible. Totally. The inciting incident occurs thirty years in the past. I tried adding it in pieces, adding it in present-day conversations, but it’s the inciting incident. Too me, it's essential for the reader to be there when it happens thirty years earlier.
So, I started thinking. What about all those books I’ve read and loved that had backstory? If avoiding backstory is the norm, maybe the norm is wrong or doesn’t apply in certain situations.
After All These Years, by Susan Isaacs is a New York Times bestselling novel I read some time ago. I liked the book so much, I went to the library and looked for another written by the same author. I checked out Isaacs’ Lilly White. Where her bestseller, After All These Years, had only the necessary amount of backstory, Lilly White was almost fifty percent backstory. Isaacs presents her story line using one chapter for Lilly White in the past and, in the next chapter, the present. She continues this pattern of shifting from a chapter in backstory back to a chapter in present time until close to the end when the past turns into the present and the climax chapters begin. I loved it and thought this tactic pure genius.
I've read other books with at least one chunk where the reader is taken back to a past time and place.
Two examples come to mind. There’s a fair-sized segment in The Blood in Snowflake Garden, by Alan Lewis that delves into a fictionalized historical event. The Blood in Snowflake Garden is Lewis’s debut novel and one that got him a TV movie option. Another example is Chester Campbell’s recent book, Hellbound. Campbell uses even less backstory then Lewis, but his fast-paced novel stops for a chapter to give the reader
background on one of the characters. For some reason it didn’t seem to stop the flow of the story. I found the backstory in both these books interesting and necessary.
So, as I move through my work in progress, A Promotion to Die For, I write backstory because the story line will culminate with my character bumping up against circumstances surrounding an event that happened to her thirty years earlier. I don’t need to use half a book of backstory like Susan Isaacs did so well in Lily White, but I will have to dip into the past in several spots including the inciting incident scene that transpires in the very first chapter.
I think those who warn against using too much backstory are often correct, but I think there’s always exceptions to every rule, especially in writing. When I need to use backstory in A Promotion to Die For, I plan for it to appear deliberate because it is. I am doing everything I can to avoid anything that comes across as an info dump. I’m writing backstory that, not only knits its way into the present, but also claws its way there hoping that’s how the reader will see it.
I have it right in my head. I’m just hoping it works in my book.