B is for Backstory

B

Your primary setting should have a backstory.  It doesn’t have to appear in your narrative, though many novels do have some kind of place exposition.

This is a good time to practice show vs. tell (something I struggle with).   Your protagonist can interact with the environment and slowly infer what this setting is all about, how it functions, and which people he should avoid.

Or not–remember how J.K. Rowling made us think dotty old Arabella Figg was just a Muggle babysitter Harry Potter hated getting stuck with when the Dursleys didn’t want to take him anywhere?  And later we found out she was actually watching over him and she was a Squib!  Who’dve thought!

(Sorry, I had a nerd spasm there for a second.  I’m okay now.)  My point?  Little Whinging, Surrey, looks like an ordinary English suburb, but it has secrets.  Neither Harry nor we know them at the beginning.

Yep, just another rainy day at Number 4 Privet Drive; nothing to see here.  Certainly no wizards about.

Yep, just another rainy day at Number 4 Privet Drive; nothing to see here.  Certainly no wizards about.

Image:  Elizabeth West / Warner Bros. Studio Tour, London

Settings we have some familiarity with don’t require much exposition—when we see a medieval village, we know several things right off the bat:

  • Depending on the architecture and scenery, we can tell roughly where we are
  • Life is hard
  • The people we’re about to meet are poor, unless we’re standing in a palace or a large house
  • There will probably be some kind of authority figure like a squire, a noble, or a wicked queen
Thaaaat’s right.  I’m all about that wickedness, baby!

Thaaaat’s right.  I’m all about that wickedness, baby!

Image:  onceuponatimeabc.wikia.com

Even if we know where we are, we need a sense of the dynamics.  Your protagonist might have landed in a medieval village where everyone is a typical serf, landowner, etc. but the vortex in the woods keeps spitting out alien creatures they have to feed every so often.  Maybe he’ll find it when he goes to investigate why the trees in the center of the forest keep rocking back and forth when there is no wind.

If he is a resident himself, the origins of an insidious plot to replace the kindly squire with a sympathizer of the wicked queen might slowly dawn on him through a series of unusual events that deviate from the familiar routine.  First, you have to show that routine.

Either way, at some point, readers want to know why this particular place functions the way it does (or doesn’t).   A bit of backstory dropped here and there in the form of flashbacks, information from other characters, and perhaps even a book or document in a convenient place will save time.  If you want your reader to experience your setting, let your protagonist discover it.  Readers will do so along with him, and that will let them participate in your story.

It’s almost as if we were there -- HOLY CRAP MYRTLE!  IT’S A DEMENTOR! GET YOUR WAND OUT, QUICK! 

It’s almost as if we were there — HOLY CRAP MYRTLE!  IT’S A DEMENTOR! GET YOUR WAND OUT, QUICK!

Image:  Elizabeth West / Warner Bros. Studio Tour, London

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6 thoughts on “B is for Backstory

    • Yeah, it’s something I need to practice, for sure. Believe me, I am very aware of all my shortcomings!

      On Sat, Apr 2, 2016 at 6:50 AM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:

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  1. This is such a good post. As a reader I dislike when all of the backstory is at the very beginning. That is so boring and something I always want to be aware of as a writer.
    Good luck with the challenge.

    • Yes! You don’t need a prologue when a later flashback will do. Plus show vs. tell is a better way to draw your readers in. Like I said, I’m still struggling with that one, and also with avoiding info dumps later on.

      We need to get the reader interested in the actual story before we can give them the background. Let that play out a bit first.

      People would have ditched Stephen King’s*The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger* if he started with “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” [actual awesome opening line] and then, “But first, blah blah blahdee Gilead blahdee blah blah Mejis yadda yadda yadda yah.” Nope. He did it better–we get to know both Roland’s and Mid-World’s backstory through the course of several books. :)

      On Sat, Apr 2, 2016 at 8:50 PM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:

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