So, you’ve done your research, your world building, and honed each character’s history. Now, how do you incorporate that backstory into your actual novel? Think of it as seasoning. It’s an essential part of a great story, but it needs to flavor the whole story, not just a single mouthful.
Backstory Must Pair with Present Action
Ultimately, readers care about what’s happening right now. When your backstory directly relates to the drama unfolding in the present, however, readers suddenly care about it a lot more. Maybe backstory can explain why someone is chasing your hero through the woods. Maybe there is a bizarre wave of imagery in your characters dreams that backstory decodes. Backstory makes your characters’ current predicament tenser, richer, and more memorable. The film Inception does this exceptionally well. Backstory is necessary for the story to advance, to make sense, and it becomes increasingly important as the story unwinds. The lesson to take away is this: make backstory an essential part of the current plot and always pair past events with fresh ones.
Make the Readers Desperate to Know What Happened
Readers like to know things. It’s just another part of being human. We like answers. So, when you build your narrative, stoke your readers’ curiosity. What is happening? Why is it happening? What did that character mean when they said that? Why does the hero hate grapefruit so much? We don’t know, but we want to.
Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series features one of the most convoluted backstories in YA fiction. Not only do the books rely on immediate action, but that action – and the relationships that drive it – depend on several layers of backstory. Funke reveals different layers at different times. She mixes history from the book world with the events of the night when Mo lost Maggie’s mother. On top of that, the backstory actually changes. Readers desperately want to know more, because the backstory itself is essentially under threat.
Every backstory should be a mystery, even if you aren’t writing a thriller. People don’t discuss their history all day every day. Pace your revelations and peel back the curtain slowly, just the way people actually share their pasts.
Tease your readers. Drop clues, but don’t explain them. Start this trend early and you’ll build tension effortlessly, starting in the first chapter. These hints may be – and probably should be – quite small. Mention a wedding ring in your character’s description, but don’t mention any signs of a partner around their home. You don’t have to draw attention to it. People will notice the incongruities you pepper through your tale. Mention anniversaries, plans, or places your character used to live – maybe they will return to that place later in the story. Have fun with it! Feel free to misdirect. Subverting expectations is great.
How do you make your backstory interesting? Break it up, tie it to immediate action, and make your readers crave it. It may take some juggling, but the payoff is more than worth it.