How To · Writing

Figuring Out Backstory – Part One

I’ve been spending some time brushing up on different elements of the novel and today … and tomorrow … I’ll be posting about my thoughts and understanding of backstory.

It seems the more I learn about writing a novel…the less I know about writing a novel. It’s not just conflicting advice but the ‘rules that are not rules but the rules that your manuscript needs to follow except when story dictates the rules be broken’.  There is a time when the story is best served by breaking the rules, but it’s confusing figuring out if that’s what you’re doing.

I spent some time researching backstory because it kept coming up as an issue during critiques with a work in progress — the backstory detracted from the action and brought the scene to a standstill. The dilemma I faced was the backstory was necessary in order to relay important information that happened before page one.

After studying a few books, I noticed a difference in the method I used. I wrote the backstory as a way to show an event happened in the past but didn’t make it relevant to present action/scene in the story.

Example One from a romantic suspense work in progress:

“The little lady is afraid of thunder.” He chuckled and pulled her toward a sports utility vehicle. “Not much of a surprise.”

No, it wouldn’t be. That night three weeks ago, when the hooded man grabbed her arm, Noelle had offered her purse, giving a rundown of the items inside, a digital music player, two credit cards…neither signed…keys to her car and $112.64. The instructions from the women’s self-defense classes her older sister made her take didn’t make sense when faced with the reality of a robbery. The instinct to survive seemed better served by giving over the measly possessions than fighting. 

“We want you, Noelle,” he had whispered in her ear.

She dropped her purse and apparently her voice because she couldn’t scream. She stood dumbfounded, motionless by her error in judgment. The man pointed a gun at her and motioned toward a gray van with tinted windows. The barrel jabbed into her side and she complied, climbing into the van without an ounce of fight. Two other men wearing hoods sat in the back. One tied her hands behind her back, while the other kidnapper secured the rope around her ankles. They shoved a gag into her mouth and wrapped the blindfold tight around her head. She remembered the taste of her silent sobs and how she hoped not to choke on her fear.

“As long as you behave, you won’t be hurt,” the men had promised. “Once Daddy gives us our money, you’ll go home.”

“Easiest money we’ll ever make.” Deep laughter had filled the van.

Nearly a month later, Noelle still waited for her family to save her.

In example number one, the purpose for including this information was to ‘show’ Noelle’s kidnapping. The problem was that the purpose (show kidnapping) and the action (kidnapping taking place) occurred in the past. The present activity is Noelle remembering the event, which then focuses the character away from the current action — the kidnappers moving Noelle from the cabin to the truck.

The kidnapping is important to the set the scene and to stage the suspense part of the plot, but the question that the plot revolves around is what Noelle learns after she’s rescued. Since that is the main plot of the book, I thought about what is the purpose than for showing the kidnapping. Why was it necessary…especially the details about Noelle’s reaction to the armed masked man?

Once I changed the purpose of the backstory, to show the reader why Noelle’s decided to attempt a bold escape that went against her normal tendency for non-confrontation, the information became part of the present action.

Tomorrow, I’ll post the new version of this scene.

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