My first science thriller, Freezing Point, opens with the crew of a fishing trawler braving rough seas off the coast of St. John’s, Newfoundland:
The wind howled around the solitary trawler like an angry god. Inside the wheelhouse, Ben Maki braced himself as an errant wave hit broadside and the trawler listed heavily to starboard. Sleet spattered the windows on the port side. White patches of sea ice told him they were close. The captain grinned—at least, Ben hoped it was a smile; the expression could have been a grimace as it wrapped around an unlit cigar.
Who is Ben Maki? Why is he on this ship? What does he hope to accomplish? Readers won’t find the answers to those questions in my opening pages. Why not? Because the answers are part of the novel’s backstory.
Backstory refers to the characters’ history and other story elements that underlie the situation at the start of the book. Backstory helps to establish the setting and makes the reader care about what happens to the characters.
But as authors, we need to be careful: Backstory by definition takes the story backward. Whether we employ flashbacks, character musings, and recollections, or passages of exposition to reveal what came before, every instance of backstory stops our novel’s forward momentum, and risks leaving our stories—well, dead in the water.
Too Much, Too Soon
One of the most common mistakes I note when I’m called upon to offer comments on aspiring authors’ manuscripts is that the author has included too much backstory in the opening pages. Sometimes, the novel plods along page after page as the author diligently works to set up the story, and I have to force myself to keep reading. Other times, the novel gets off to a terrific start, but just as the author has carried me breathlessly through that first tension-filled chapter and I start thinking, This author can really write, the second chapter falls into storytelling mode—and I don’t mean storytelling in a good way!
Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”
In actuality, there are very little readers need to know about our characters’ history and motivations that they won’t learn over the course of the book. Interrupting our story to tell the reader about something that happened before it began works against the very thing we’re trying so hard to accomplish: engaging the readers and sweeping them up into the world of our novel.
I love showing authors how they’re unwittingly sabotaging their stories upfront and then watching their light bulbs go off because the problem has such an easy fix: All they have to do is isolate the instances of unnecessary backstory, and take them out.
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If you don’t have an experienced reader to look to for help, this solution might sound easier said than done. It helps to remember that strong novel openings are cinematic. Moviegoers don’t question what they’re shown on the screen as the film begins, because they’re literally watching the story play out in front of them.
Likewise, throwing our readers into our narratives without explaining how the characters got to that point is enough to establish the story’s reality. Putting my characters on that ship and showing what happens to them when the iceberg they lasso rolls unexpectedly and their ship turns upside down is sufficient. I have the whole rest of the book to show why they were there in the first place.
Timing Is Everything
Managing backstory in a novel is a matter of control. A good storyteller has no trouble thinking up rich histories for his characters. But a good novelist holds these details back, revealing them only at the time that best serves the story.
“Rushing the backstory is a terrible waste,” says Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain. “Many writers try to get too much out too soon. If the earthquake is going to happen today, don’t start your story two days ago, even though something important happened to your protagonist two days ago. Start it with the earthquake. Then, the previous two days become the backstory that will inform our hero’s actions in the ‘now’—the fight he had with his wife, the fact that he has no gas in his car (or cash), or that his kids are stuck at summer camp and he has to get to them. Tension between what the reader knows and what the reader doesn’t know will then serve to propel your reader through your story.”
In addition to gumming up the trajectory of the narrative with unnecessary details, writers who reveal too much too soon interfere with what Stein calls “the reader’s game of anticipation and prediction.” He explains: “Part of the reading experience is the predictive game readers play. As readers, we are always trying to glean the reason for an action, and we put together our own backstory based on the clues a writer gives us. Sometimes those things turn out to be true, sometimes they don’t. That’s the fun part. When we discover the author’s truth, we can compare it with what we predicted and see how it measures up.”
If backstory in a novel’s opening pages is a problem, why do so many newer writers include it? Most often it’s because they don’t realize that as they sit down to begin their novel, they’re not actually writing the story—not yet. Those early pages might look like a novel, but they’re really prep work.
“Writing backstory feels like storytelling,” says New York Times bestselling novelist Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet), “but it isn’t. It’s regurgitating facts, or dolling up aspects of world-building—basically plugging in what that author already knows, hoping it will entertain and enlighten the reader. Instead, it has the opposite effect. Less is more. Backstory is like creating a ‘connect-the-dots’ picture—you just need the dots. The reader will draw the lines.”
As we begin writing, we’re grounding ourselves in the story, exploring our characters, creating their histories as we discover who they are and what they want. These early writings are a crucial part of the process. As authors, we need to know everything that came before and why our characters act as they do.
Our readers, however, do not. Answering their questions too early and too easily takes away a large part of the incentive for them to keep reading.
Examine your opening pages with a critical eye and ask: Does the reader really need to know this fact about the character? Or is this detail something that I find interesting, but isn’t crucial to the story? Will the story fall apart if I withhold this information?
If your conclusion is that the reader absolutely needs to know a particular detail about the situation or the character, then ask yourself: Does the reader need to know this now, in the opening pages? Or can I reveal it later, after the reader is more engaged with the characters and has fully invested in the story? Is there a better way to introduce this crucial bit of backstory, aside from simply relating it? Can I accomplish the same thing more subtly by using hints and innuendos, thus allowing the reader to use her imagination to fill in the gaps and participate more fully in the story?
A good opening sets the scene, introduces the characters, and sets the story in motion. What it never does is answer the question, “Why?” Why the characters behave and think as they do, and how they came to this point in the opening are questions that will be answered throughout the book.
The Right Balance
How can you discern which instances of backstory are crucial to the story and which are not? Folio Literary Management’s Jeff Kleinman offers a simple answer: “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.”
Read Kleinman’s comment again. Good storytelling has nothing to do with what the author wants to say, and everything to do with what the characters need to say. As authors, we don’t speak in our own voices; rather, we’re speaking for our characters. Thus, it’s perfectly all right to have a character say, “I grew up in a small town in New Jersey,” or, “I was the middle child in a religiously conservative family”—as long as this detail is something the character desperately wants to tell the reader.
Consider Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, which is narrated by a dog. In the opening paragraph, clearly, there’s something the narrator urgently wants readers to know:
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home—he should be here soon—lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.
Aside from showing us that Stein’s canine narrator is wonderfully self-aware, this opening raises more questions than it answers. All we know is that the dog is planning something—a “grand gesture”—and that it somehow involves lying in a puddle of urine while waiting for his master to come home.
This is the “now” of the story, as Stein puts it. “Think of your story as having two elements,” he says. “There’s the ‘now,’ which is the immediacy of the drama that’s being played out before us, and there’s the ‘then,’ which is the ‘how we got here’ of the story—or the backstory, if you prefer.”
If you’re realizing that you’ve inadvertently loaded the beginning of your novel with backstory, don’t despair. “My editor always says, ‘Cut this from the beginning and weave it into the narrative,’” Ford admits, “so I fight those same backstory battles.”
When in Doubt
For authors struggling with backstory, Kleinman has this advice: “In almost all cases, if it’s backstory, it needs to be cut.”
This might seem drastic. If you’re not yet convinced, I offer this challenge: Comb through your opening chapters looking for backstory. Remove every instance, and see if your story doesn’t read better.
I speak from experience. In addition to representing Stein and other successful authors, Kleinman is my agent. When I sent him the final draft of my first novel, the opening chapter included several paragraphs of backstory that I believed the reader needed to know in order to understand what was happening. More specifically: who Ben Maki was, why he was on that ship, and what he hoped to accomplish.
But Kleinman flagged all of these instances as unnecessary. He is a talented editor as well as a wonderful literary agent, and I trust his judgment. So I took his advice and removed every shred of backstory from the opening pages.
Later, after my novel sold and my Berkley editor sent Freezing Point out to select readers in hopes of garnering endorsement blurbs, New York Times bestselling thriller author Douglas Preston wrote: “The opening chapter is superb, a truly beautiful piece of work, one of the best I’ve read in a long time.”
No matter where we begin our stories, there’s always something that came before. Listen to your characters. Figure out what they desperately want to tell readers. Then hold these details back as long as you can. Reveal them gradually throughout your novel in clever, imaginative ways, and your story will remain firmly and engagingly in the “now.”