Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass suggests that too many manuscripts end up in the slush pile because of backstory overload. As writers, we think if we don't include enough background, the reader won't understand the protagonist's motivation or actions. But what we end up doing is stopping the story dead by boring our reader. How many times have you struggled with the opening of a good book because the author couldn't curtail the about of history? And when was the last time you met someone, who within the first moments of being introduced, told you everything about themselves? Come to think of it, I did meet a girl once who felt the need to share her life story. I remember her face and even her name, but I don't remember what she said.
Backstory (history or background) is a literary device that we writers use to add drama to our stories. Think, Sophie's Choice. Do you remember that moment when it was finally disclosed how, during the Nazi occupation, Sophie was forced to choose which child to send to the gas chamber? Her son or her daughter.
Either through memories or flashbacks or just narrative recollection, backstory lends depth to who the protagonist is and why he's in his present predicament. Unfortunately, if used wrong, it weakens the story. The secret is to know when to add it.
Remember the first time you met your spouse. Do you think you'd be together today if s/he had told you everything within that first meeting? No. It took time to hear his story, to learn his secrets. For instance, my husband discovered my fear of heights during the construction of our current home, some 20 years after we'd met. He asked me to climb three levels of scaffolding to help him paint the window frames. Why did it take that long for him to find out that I was afraid of heights? The subject had never come up before.
Sadly, there is no secret formula for knowing when to apply backstory and when not to. The trick is to entice your reader with red-herrings. If possible, try to hold back for at least the first three chapters. A hint here or there is fine, but don't feel the need to bog down the story by stopping to reveal too much too fast. Let the story unfold.
In Dead Witness, Valerie witnesses the execution of two FBI agents. As the shock wears off, she thinks about the agents' families. Why? Because Valerie's parents died when she was fourteen; she understands that kind of pain. That information is revealed in chapter three, but not elaborated upon. She remembers the night the police came to her door, but how and why her parents died still isn't revealed. And though she thinks of her parents often, it's not until chapter seventeen that her brother Aidan adds to the suspense by admitting to a friend he was wrong about his dad's death being a contract killing. Finally, in chapter twenty-one, Valerie explains how and why her parents died.
In one of my current WIPs, my detective is grieving the unsolved murder of his wife six month previous. Her death has nothing to do with the current investigation, but its impact on him never leaves. In my first five drafts, I struggled with how much information I should reveal to my reader. It was only when I used deep POV that I was able to understand how much he would naturally let surface.
Backstory can be burdensome but also vital to your story. As with all other aspects of writing, listen to what your critique partners are saying, get your hands on a copy of Donald Maass' book, and revise, revise -- revise.