Craft: Just in Time Backstory
When you create your characters, you often do a lot of work to figure out their backstory—everything that happened to them before the story began.
The temptation is to tell the reader all that backstory as soon as you can. Because it’s super interesting to you, it’s easy to assume that it’s super interesting to your reader.
The problem is that your reader wants to get into the main story first, to get emotionally connected to your characters. Until your reader cares about the main story, he or she doesn’t care about your backstory. Backstory is incredibly important, but it’s like salt in the soup. A little goes a long way.
So how do you handle that? How much backstory should you tell? When should you tell it? What do you do with the backstory you never tell your reader?
To squeeze it all down to one critical question: How do you know how much backstory to write into the scene you’re working on right now?
My Rule of Thumb for Backstory
My working rule of thumb is to introduce backstory “just in time.” Meaning that when you’re writing a scene where the backstory plays a crucial role, you tell the reader whatever bit of backstory you need right when you need it. Just that and no more.
This is a rule of thumb, not an ironclad rule. Of course you’ll sometimes need to introduce backstory before you need it. But if you don’t need to, then don’t.
The reason for telling backstory just in time is that backstory tends to slow down your story. It’s a good idea to not slow it down any more than you have to.
An Example of Just in Time Backstory
A month or two ago, I read the novel The President is Missing, by James Patterson and Bill Clinton. I thought it would give me an inside look into the job of being President, and I was right. My working assumption here is that Patterson did all or most of the writing and Clinton provided the background info, which seems the most likely way they split out the duties of coauthoring situation. So in my analysis below, I’ll refer to Patterson as the writer, even though of course Clinton is a coauthor.
The protagonist of the book is President Jonathan Duncan. Cyberterrorists have targeted the US with a lethal computer virus that could bring the country to its knees. The President and eight of his closest advisors know the virus exists, and they’re desperate to prevent a catastrophe. The President also knows that one of the eight is a traitor, which makes his job even harder. He’s got to save the country and unmask the traitor, and he has two days.
Congressional leaders aren’t in on the secret, so all they know is that the President is acting very weird and could possibly be committing treason.
I read the book a couple of times. The first to enjoy the story. The second to take it apart and see how it works. James Patterson is a wily author who uses every trick in the book to weave unexpected twists into his stories. I wanted to study his set of tricks.
On my second read through the book, I took note of Patterson’s careful handling of backstory. Very often, he brought it into a scene exactly when he needed it.
A nice example is the opening chapter, which begins with this bit of dialogue: “The House Select Committee will come to order …”
This is a very tricky scene to get right. The author has to introduce the protagonist, President Duncan, make it clear that he is genuinely the good guy in this story, and introduce the predatory congress-critters who are out to get the President. All from a cold start in which the reader knows nothing about the President, his congressional opposition, or the cyberthreat facing the country.
This scene could very easily be a boring encyclopedia article on how a congressional investigation goes. But it isn’t. It’s a reasonably fast-paced scene that puts our hero in danger immediately, without confusing the reader. How does Patterson make this scene work?
He does it by mixing in action, dialogue, and carefully measured-out bits of backstory.
The first paragraph is the snip of dialogue I already quoted above.
Then comes a paragraph of interior monologue about the sharks on the House Select Committee and the President’s fears in dealing with them.
Then three quick paragraphs of backstory, direct quotes from the previous night, when the President’s chief of staff urged him not to testify. This counts as backstory, but it’s told as dialogue—essentially a mini-flashback.
Then there’s a paragraph showing us what the President sees, thirteen angry congressmen. The paragraph zooms in on the nameplate of the chairman, Lester Rhodes.
Then there’s a paragraph of backstory about Rhodes, explaining why he’s so dangerous to the President. This is told as interior monologue, so it’s in the President’s voice, and it’s told in a way that makes you empathize with the President. You don’t have to be told the President is the good guy of this story, because you feel it.
Then there’s another paragraph of action. The President adjusts his mike so he won’t have to lean forward. He’s paying attention to his body language, doing everything he can to avoid looking weak. This is the sort of thing that real presidents have to think about.
Next is a paragraph of interior monologue. The President is prepping to be grilled.
The scene continues like that for the rest of the chapter. There’s a bit of action/dialogue/interior monologue. Then there’s a bit of backstory to explain what the heck is happening.
This could easily go wrong, and there are two ways to fail:
Show too much action and dialogue, without enough backstory to understand what’s happening. This fails by confusing the reader.
Tell too much backstory, without enough action and dialogue to keep the story moving. This fails by boring the reader.
There’s a fine line you have to walk in this kind of scene. I’ve read the scene several times, and my judgment is that Patterson nailed it. The scene is quite long, but it’s compelling and reasonably clear at all points. And it ends with a cliffhanger that forces you to turn the page.
In such a complex first scene, I don’t see any way to do it better.
Breaking the Rule of Thumb
For most of the story, Patterson follows our rule of thumb very closely. He introduces backstory just in time. But there are certain points at which he doesn’t. There are a few places where he gives you a bit of backstory for no obvious reason.
But there is a reason. If you read the book, be watching for those apparently unnecessary bits of backstory. Some of them are clues that will turn into major surprises a hundred pages down the road. Or two hundred pages.
Not all of them are clues. But some of them are. A good author seeds in clues far in advance of the surprise. Then the reader doesn’t feel cheated when he realizes he’s been misled. Because the clues were there.
A big part of the art of writing major plot twists is seeding in clues to plot twists a long time in advance, often using what appears to be innocent backstory.
I’m not in the business of spoiling other authors’ plot twists, so I won’t give examples of just how Patterson worked his magic with his plot twists. But study how Patterson hides his clues in the backstory, doing his best to make you slap your head when you reach the twist and say, “Dang! I should have seen that coming!”
And if you’re observant, you will see it coming and you can bask in the glow of your own cleverness—until you hit the next twist that you didn’t foresee.
Enjoy the Ride
You may or may not buy into the idea that a supervirus can infect machines running a wide variety of operating systems—Mac OS, Windows, Linux, and numerous other flavors of Unix. But whether you do or not, you can enjoy the story and learn from the master. This is a political thriller, not a technothriller.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.