Right, so you opened a book and the first chapter is something that has little to do with the current plot. In fact, there’s a lot of telling and no showing, so you skip a few pages, hoping to get to where the story begins. You flip through an entire chapter, where the story finally kicks off. Boom! That’s a lot of backstory, my friends.
Fantastic, the author would’ve made a fantastic historian. Heck, perhaps becoming a historian rather than an author is what they should’ve taken as a career path.
But, they decided to become an author and they’re going to fail because readers want to read a story, not engage in a history lesson. If they wanted one, they’d invest their hard-earned capital in historical novels, not something that’s in the fantasy, action, adventure, or sci-fi genre.
So stop writing a history book in the first chapter or two.
I did this with the early drafts of Northern Knights before I found out something else.
My characters rehashed the hash within the story.
In other words, the backstory at the beginning wasn’t just unnecessary, it slowed the entire story down.
The first rule to writing a novel is this: Keep the story moving in a progressive manner.
How to Incorporate Backstory
First and foremost, it’s okay to hint at backstory. It’s okay to hint at backstory from the first sentence. But the key word is hint!
You don’t have to write a twenty-page chapter in Book I of your awesome series or standalone book talking about events that happened before which may or may not have anything to do with the plot.
Maybe hint in the first few sentences at backstory.
For instance, I do this several times on page one in Northern Knights while keeping the story running smooth.
In the first sentence, I hint at this when I state ‘Cain Riscattare would’ve laughed in a man’s face had they told him his life was about to derail.’
The reader already knows Cain’s living a stress-free life.
Farther down the page, I hint at something else, which is significant to Cain and his best friend, Lira.
But again, it’s just a one-liner, before Cain’s aunt reminisces for a single sentence on events prior to the novel.
The reader knows something happened.
Something bad happened.
Something that led Cain straight to where he is at the story’s beginning.
Not twenty pages worth of backstory.
Allow Backstory to Occur Naturally
I realize backstory will create a compelling character.
One example I absolutely love to this day is the first chapter in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which starts out in Vernon Dursley’s point of view.
There are two things I love.
1. J.K. Rowling could’ve made this a prologue and she didn’t, which was a VERY smart move. Besides, who the hell reads prologues, anyway?
2. She basically told the entire backstory through action and dialogue. Vernon’s experiences told the reader that something strange was happening.
Then, point-of-view switches to Albus Dumbledore, who converses to Minerva McGonagall about what occurred the previous evening.
The reader already knows a few things about Harry Potter before the first chapter ends, but could you imagine if Rowling just narrated this thing?
I can’t just guarantee you, but I can guaran-damn-tee you, Harry Potter would’ve been buried under a bookshelf somewhere and never, ever, ever would’ve become the phenomenon it is today.
The fact Rowling introduced characters allowed the reader to make instant connections with characters and immediately feel for Harry. Rowling’s dialogue, action, and opening scenes hooked the reader.
Had she narrated the whole chapter from her own point-of-view, we would’ve seen the butterfly effect in full swing.
There are millions upon millions of books available to the public. If you want your book to have Harry Potter potential, you need to steer backstory into the plot.
Let Backstory Seep
Finally, let backstory seep in your plot.
Don’t give away too much at once.
Yes, there is a lot in backstory that we can uncover about our characters, the current situation, and even why the plot is the way it is, but again, most of the time, backstory leads us to the current plot but beyond that, has nothing to do with the current plot.
I give some leeway in Chapter One of Northern Knights in a conversation between Cain and Lira.
However, I use this as an opportunity to show off their relationship. The reader can see that Cain’s the irrational one whereas Lira’s more of a no-nonsense type. Cain can be wayward while Lira’s straightforward.
Again, had I narrated this, most readers never would’ve made it to Cain and Lira. They would’ve said, “Screw this, I’m finding a better book.”
But, with each passing chapter, a little more backstory unfolded. This became apparent when Cain interacted with General Randelo Jefferson later on in the plot.
Toward the book’s final one-hundred pages, backstory became even more apparent.
How to Fix Your Work in Progress
Okay, what I did was this: I took my narration of backstory, about twenty pages’ worth, and read through my manuscript, when the actual story began. I then inserted bits and pieces of backstory where it naturally fit, usually in scenes with little dialogue.
All I did was extend the scenes and create dialogue which led into some backstory being revealed.
As stated earlier, much of the backstory was already handed out in later chapters, so I was lucky enough to delete much of the first chapter, which freed up some space to focus more on Northern Knights’ subplot.
Take your backstory narration, copy and paste on to a separate Word doc, and search for such places.
Now, if you really want to pull off a good backstory within your plot, I’ve always suggested to allow your reader find things out when your point-of-view character does. This not only adds a little shock value, but a sense of realism within the text.
This leads me into tomorrow’s article, where I’ll show you how to limit one’s point-of-view so you can master this phenomenon.