Backstory is defined as everything that shapes your characters up to the point your story begins. It is more than where they went to school or their relationships with their parents. It defines the moral, intellectual and emotional landscape of your characters and shapes their morality, spirituality and entire way of life. Character backstory shapes their current actions rather than control them. It helps us understand why they behave in a particular way.
Backstory, of course, is basically self-explanatory. It’s the story that goes in back of the real story. The story before the story. The unseen history that explains all of your characters’ origins, motives, decisions and behavior. As such, it’s understandably vital to the progression and consistency of your tale. Particularly during this modern trend of beginning stories in the middle of things, a deep and full-bodied backstory is every bit as important as the story itself.
When I sit down to write a new story, I generally have a basic idea of the major plot points. I know who my heroes are, I know what they’re after, I know some of things they’re going to have to accomplish to reach their goals. But my concept of who they are and what, in their individual pasts, has shaped them into the people I need them to be, is often foggy at best.
Before I can tell others my story, I have to tell myself its prequel. I begin writing my characters’ backstories with no other intention than that of figuring out where my story proper needs to go. But the exhilarating part of all this is that usually the backstory takes on a life of its own and transforms my previously shallow concept of my story into something much bigger.
Here are ten things every mystery writer should know about backstory.
1. It’s essential to determine how much backstory is necessary for the story. Do not over explain past events. Choose only those events needed to explain a character’s emotions and actions.
2. It’s absolutely critical to decide where and how to insert background information into a fast moving mystery novel without stalling the story.
3. Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know as much backstory as the writer does so keep backstory to a minimum.
4. You must make the past (backstory) important to the reader by making it the vehicle that ties together the mysterious threads of the current action.
5. Weave the backstory into the plot in small dribbles revealing more bits of information as the story progresses. This keeps the reader wanting more.
6. Deliver backstory in a scene where it fits naturally into the story. Tie the information to some type of action that’s happening.
7. Try not to present backstory in the first chapter. You need to open your novel with action that propels the story forward. By its very nature, backstory is not action and it does not move the story forward.
8. Backstory should provide information that engages your readers’ imagination and forces him/her to ask more questions.
9. Flashback is a useful vehicle for presenting backstory but something in the scene must trigger it.
10. Keep backstory short and to the point. Never wax poetically in the past while the story halts and the reader dozes off.