Backstory Without Bludgeoning

Here’s something I learned from a writing book recently: backstory informs motivation, which informs action.  A character’s backstory decides what motivates him to do things.  I thought that was very interesting at the time, so I tried to put it to use.

Armed with this advice, I started looking at good movies and books to see where they did this.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t obvious how they did it.

One thing that confused me was how you wanted to do the reveal at the midpoint, but you want to know the motivations early on– if backstories inform motivations, we need to see the backstories before we see the motivations.  That, however, makes for a really corny story where only the last third of it is in the present, and the rest is a flashback.  That’s no good.

No, I was wrong about how that advice works.  Backstories don’t inform motivation in that the audience can sit there and say exactly what made the character did something, psychiatrist style.  (“Because of the inconclusive events of the past year, he has trouble internalizing any sort of penguin war…”)  Backstories inform the character and often aren’t seen.  We don’t have to know why something got a certain way as long as it can be conclusively said that it is that certain way.

Now, that’s a tough concept.  Having the backstory as the submerged part of the iceberg will work, but if the character has more complex emotions than usual, we’ll need more.  We’ll understand if the main character hates wombats because they killed his sister– we won’t understand if he’s got complicated emotions because he was good friends with a certain wombat whom he believes is still trustworthy, but the wombats killed his sister.  Those are conflicting emotions.

Ah, but here’s the good part.  (I’m just realizing this.)  Emotions are not always conflicting.  For instance, the main character might show his hatred of wombats in one scene as you show his quest to avenge his sister, but in another scene you see his friendship with the wombat.  At this point, the reader doesn’t have to know about his dead sister, nor how the character met the wombat– all they have to know is that he hates wombats, but not this one.  Fancy that.

However, when the two emotions come together and collide in a single scene, that’s when we need the backstory.  The main character reaches a point in his quest where he could destroy the entire wombat colony, but his friend is inside.  His quest to avenge his sister conflicts with his friendship.  He can sacrifice one for the other, but he can’t have both.

And that’s where you need the backstory.  The reader needs to know why the hatred and the friendship exist– at this point, the emotions are so complex you can’t go on without making things too confusing to follow.  It’s time to start giving answers.

And what’s that point of the narrative called again?  The midpoint.  Hey, look, I just talked myself out of my own problem.

This works a lot of the time.  For simple individual emotions like hatred or friendship, it will work.  However, for personal emotions, things that are already complex when they hit the page, you need that backstory to make sense of it.

Take The Alloy of Law.  (It should be assumed that every book I mention is a Brandon Sanderson book.  If it isn’t, I’ll tell you.)  Right at the beginning, we have a flashback into the main character’s past.  It describes a scene that ended badly for the main character, laying the groundwork for much of the emotion in the following story.  The author was able to refer back to that when he needed to bring up that complex emotion.

Compare that to the clumsy backstory technique seen in some published novels where the main character almost constantly says, “It looked just like that day in my childhood when…”  It’s always the same backstory they’re trying to introduce, but it’s never as strong– you can’t get the same emotion from an in-character flashback like that.  A heavy dose at the midpoint or at the beginning, you can work with.  Nudging the reader into the backstory gradually doesn’t work as well.

I think the real point of this post is that backstory informs motivation, yes– but secretly, quietly, as long as the emotions can be completely described in a single word like hatred or friendship.  There will come a time when things get more complicated, but that’s what the midpoint is for.  In the meantime, just show the character’s choices as he makes them, with the emotion, but without bludgeoning the reader with backstory.  Your story will be stronger.

Now I want to write a story about that guy with the wombats.  (Is it just an accident that I manage to write my best works as examples in blog posts?  Bob the cake-maker, Fido the dead dog, nameless guy with wombats…)  I can’t wait to try this backstory concept out on my own.

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21 thoughts on “Backstory Without Bludgeoning

      1. They are NOT cute. They are like furry bricks and they stink and bite and scratch and have faces like rats. (Have you ever lived in Australia?) And the only way a wombat could ever kill a person would be by biting or scratching hard enough to break the skin and give them a horrible disease; this can happen.

    1. Never been to Australia, but they look REALLY cute in the pictures I’ve seen.

      But okay, okay. How about death by being an obnoxious marsupial? (Totally legit cause of death. Don’t look at me that way. I’m not crazy.)

  1. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    Hmm. I don’t know about “Nudging the reader into the backstory doesn’t help.” Specifically, I’m not 100% certain I know what you mean by that. One of my characters feels very guilty over accidentally killing her sister. While the reader knows at once that the sister is dead, they don’t know how. It only becomes clear little by little, until there’s an action scene and in the heat of the moment, the character in question makes a bad decision and the reader is shown how she’s comparing that decision with the death of her sister. And that is how I’ve revealed the backstory. And I think it works rather well for her.

    Is ^ that what you’re talking about, or am I getting confused?

    1. It’s something I’m trying to teach myself. The best stories I’ve experienced have used their backstory all at once, in giant reveals, which make perfect sense to the character. I tend to introduce things early and let the backstory leak through into the POV, which is annoying even to me. (Disclaimer: I’m sure it can be done correctly and I’m sure you’ve read stories wherein it has been done correctly– unfortunately, I don’t know how to do it correctly yet.) For instance, in Stakes, my main character has a brother who was very badly hurt a long time ago. In the first chapter, it says something like, “His brother would have known what to do, but he wasn’t here now.” That’s what I mean by the backstory leaking through the narrative, or nudging the reader into the backstory. I’m sure what you’re doing is great, but at the moment, the best way to introduce backstory seems to be in a big reveal.

      1. I think that both techniques are equally effective, but I prefer the leaking-through style more. I find that the big reveal is a bit…pedestrian. Sure, it can be done in unique ways but it just seems like “everyone out there” is doing it. As for the other method, it all depends on how often you give out information. Do it too often and it gets annoying. The idea, I think, is to tease the readers with it. It’s like you’re making a promise. And I also think it works better when the backstory is interesting. If the backstory is a bit generic, the big reveal works better.

        Oh, and if you see any typos: smartphone.

      2. However, the big reveal is more of an emotional impact; leaking through is gradual, and often the reader can guess what happened, making any future explanation seem redundant. You’ve got to decide whether you want it to be guessed or to be revealed.

        You’re right that the leaky method can be good with promises, but you’ve got to be careful– with that method, you run the risk of making the backstory more interesting than the actual story, making the audience wonder if you’re telling entirely the wrong story.

      3. We ought to find a better name for that technique other than “leaky method”. That makes it sound like a public urinal or something. XD

        Anyway, the backstory is at danger of becoming a flashback. I haven’t learnt how not to do this yet. When I’m using the backstory technique in my novel, I’ve made separate chapters and titled them like, “Chapter Ten–Fifty Years Ago” and so on, and written the chapter in italics. However, towards the mid-point, there is a backstory scene that I can’t make into a separate chapter. It’s three paragraphs long, that’s all! I’ve written it in italics to show that my character is remembering this scene. But it’s eerily similar to a flashback, which I swear it isn’t.
        (Or is it? How would you define a flashback?)

        As for the leaking-through technique, I guess it would help if the actual story was equally interesting. All humor and narcissism aside, I’m very confident in the central plot of my story. That’s why I’ve used the leaking-through technique for one of my characters. I don’t want to show it as a backstory because I really find backstories ‘icky’. But you’re right. Done correctly, they do have more emotional impact. The problem is that they’re so easy to do wrong.

      4. Perhaps you’re right. That name is a bit awkward.

        A flashback is a scene that happened outside of the normal timeline of the story. It isn’t exposition, but the past presented as a narrative, as if it were happening real-time. I don’t know how you wrote it, so I can’t tell which one it is.

        That’s true. We have to be careful whatever method we use.

      5. Even I can’t tell if what I’ve written is a flashback or not.

        *Rolls eyes and shuts the door* I don’t care. Que sera sera.

  2. This is great advice. 🙂 I was wondering how I was going to introduce the backstory of my main character’s running away. I suppose I’ll leave that blank until the drama comes in. That leaves a problem I have with the villain’s motivations, though…he kind of does everything with a smile on his face, and it’d be hard to introduce his hatred without the backstory. Anyway, excellent post!

    1. There’s actually a certain length the reader can go without knowing a character’s backstory– especially with a villain. You don’t have to start with their childhood or something just to show his hatred of things. You can explain later.

      But I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Thank you!

  3. Are you telling me I need to actually sit down and read Alloy of Law?

    This is a good point, actually, and, as always, right on time. It occurred to me that my main character explains her backstory and why she refuses to trust anybody rather early on… a bit too early, I think, but I still can’t decide on a good place for it to come out. Actually, I’m just tempted to ignore the outline and see where it ends up coming out. Then again, knowing my first drafts, that’ll probably be in a worse spot…

    1. Yes, you should.

      It’s difficult, especially when you get into the emotions of the characters. I’m working on pacing myself with Phil Phorce 7, and it’s hard. I want to have the midpoint at the beginning… but I can’t. It’s so much more powerful when you let them react based on the backstory, then make them explain later.

  4. Backstory is so tricky! I used to do full on info dumps…and now, if the backstory isn’t crucial, I kind of leave it out. Bits and pieces can work in if they want to. I was reading The False Prince (which I did love) but it had about 3 chapters all up (though not together) where it was just backstory dumps. It was weird. I didn’t think authors could get away with that these days.

    That wombat story sounds ferocious. 😉 I’ve patted a wombat. They’re kind of fat and lazy.

    1. I know. That’s one of the big things I noticed about The False Prince. I really enjoyed the book, but those chapters, and right at the end, too, where it breaks viewpoint and just dumps… Wow. That backstory was totally necessary, it just wasn’t presented correctly.

      I confess, I have never seen a wombat. I simply chose it because it sounded funny.

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