Apr 25 2009

How to Use Backstory Effectively

It’s hard to handle backstory (what has happened in the past of the story). Most authors just use dull exposition. “Twelve years ago, John McGruesome was a mob hitman…” Here are a few common problems with backstory.

1.  There’s less payoff now.  You’re telling us about the hero twelve years ago to set us up for something interesting later, not because what happened twelve years ago is the most interesting part of this story.  If it were the most interesting part of this story, why not just write that story instead? (Relatedly, if the backstory is more interesting than the present, you’re writing the wrong story).

 

2.  Backstory–particularly a flashback– is  generally much less urgent and more boring.  When you use a flashback, we already know how the flashback ends: the character survives to become the person he is currently.  When the reader already knows the ending, reading is much less enjoyable.

 

3.  It’s generally harder to follow, particularly if the backstory is layered with events.  (X happened 12 years ago, Y happened 7 years ago, then we learn that Z happened 10 years ago, etc.)  For example, Heroes’ backstory is convoluted even before you factor in the time-travel.

 

Now I’d like to show an example of backstory that is very well-executed.  This is how Silent Dragon #1 introduces us to Renjiro’s history.  He is confronted by a ghost as he walks through a forest.

Here’s why I really like this.

1.  It is focused on the present, not the past. We learn a lot of interesting details about Renjiro now. For example, he shows that he is competent and skeptical by trying to disprove that he’s actually seeing a ghost.  He suggests that he isn’t comfortable about his work in the fourth panel.  He minimizes his role but doesn’t claim that his work is honorable.

 

2.  We aren’t bogged down in details.  This is paced very quickly and it’s easy to follow.

 

3.  It has conflict.

 

(A parting thought… I used a comic book example above, but these observations apply just as much to novels).

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “How to Use Backstory Effectively”

  1. ScriptSouron 26 Apr 2009 at 4:37 am

    This is very solid article that sums up the ins and outs of handling backstory perfectly. Great advice and ideas that are all true. When backstory isn’t handled well it’s a major turnoff (as in “I thought you were a woman? What the hell is that between your legs?).

    Very interesting that you use Silent Dragon as an example. I just read it and the script for issue #1 yesterday. If anyone is interested, the script for Silent Dragon – Issue #1 can be found on my blog.

  2. B. Macon 26 Apr 2009 at 12:28 pm

    I used Silent Dragon after I found it on your blog. 😉

  3. ScriptSouron 26 Apr 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Hahaha, very nice. You used it well. I would love to see more on backstory and perhaps non linear storytelling.

  4. Lighting Manon 04 Dec 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve always had an idea for handling essentially extraneous backstory, those moments in the lives of the characters that really defined them, but don’t have a place in the story, that I would like to hear some thoughts on.

    My plan for my graphic novel has always been that it would consist essentially of between 6 and 12 issues, ranging between 23 and 36 pages long apiece, much like a standard comic book issue, and between each “issue” would be a few pages of bonus material, similar to the excerpts from the fictional books, and magazines in Watchmen, that helped fill out the universe, but harnessed in a more complete and hopefully less pretentious way.

    The idea mentioned above would be essentially a series of long-form comic strips, that explored these incidences in the character’s histories, using out-of-continuity younger cartoon versions, similar in atmosphere and appearance to Baby Looney Tunes, Muppet Babies, or in comic books, Tiny Titans, and Franklin Richards, but the situations would actually be quite adult.

    Think like a Superhero Squad Peter Parker getting molested by a local bike shop owner and then making a pun on “pederasty” as the strip ends. I think it would be quite subversive and if handled correctly, enhance the effectiveness of the situations without making the characters feel like Sues, or the book a public service announcement.

    Please keep in mind, that is an extreme example, and I understand that touching on some situations would hurt my chances of getting published, but I’ve always been inspired to try to find ways to make every day tragedies hurt the reader more, and I think there is a lot of potential in this idea.

  5. B. Macon 04 Dec 2009 at 5:28 pm

    The concept sounds workable. I think Firebreather tried something similar–some issues ended with a few pages of the protagonist as a kid. It was probably useful to the author because the protagonist’s father gets killed early on but the father-son relationship is still very important. Also, the protagonist has a very unusual childhood (being half-human) and it’s harder for readers to fill in the unusual stuff on their own.

    But your particular example strikes me as uncomfortably extreme. I think that making puns about child molestation could easily rub editors the wrong way. It could come off as a lot more creepy than funny.

    “I’ve always been inspired to try to find ways to make every day tragedies hurt the reader more…” Child molestation strikes me as a bit more of an exotic tragedy than an everyday one. An everyday one would be like the parents angrily separating. Moreover, if the purpose is to make the reader feel hurt, why make a joke about it at the end? Let’s say you’ve achieved your goal and the readers are hurt as they approach that line. When they finally read it, what are some ways they might respond that would leave them excited to buy the next book? (This is an especially pressing concern because the line comes right at the end, right?)

  6. PaintedSainton 04 Dec 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Lightning Man:

    I’d have to recommend A Series of Unfortunate Events for tragedy that could be dark comedy. For example, the baby sibling of the protagonist trio was forced by the main villains to set up a tent for them on a mountain’s mesa by herself, whilst the villains ate chips and watched her from the inside of a car. No one wanted to share a tent with her, so they made her sleep in an upside down casserole dish outside.

    The premise is ludicrous enough that it may not occur in real life, but the blistering cold and general bossiness the baby had to face are relatable to the reader.

  7. Lighting Manon 09 Dec 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Those are all good points that you raised, and thanks to the both of you for the recommendations of looking at those series, I will. You’re right about the example I gave being extreme and actually a rather uncommon rare thing, I just wanted your complete opinion regarding the issue, so I wanted to use an example that went beyond a line I never intend to cross, to get a farther perspective on it then a tame example would. I don’t actually intend on ending with punchlines unless one is called for, but rather just a panel that centers on the dramatic irony of the situation.

    Your example of a common tragedy is actually exactly what I have planned for one of the strips. It would focus on the lead female character, as a young girl dealing with the moving truck that has arrived at her family home in order to collect her mother’s belongings as the result of a divorce. She would be then take various eccentric steps of varying sophistication to stop the movers from succeeding, each presumably taking one or two panels to show, such as her exhaustively stacking furniture that she couldn’t possibly move by herself, in front of the kitchen door, only to realize that the kitchen has multiple entrances and she has, effectively helped them, and siphoning the gasoline from the truck using a garden hose.

    The final three panels would presumably consist of her expressing relief and satisfaction as she watches the truck depart while she stands on the porch, perhaps a plastic bucket like a child would receive at Easter, with a floral pattern of some sort, hanging heavily with gasoline from her left hand. She would assume victory, only to enter her home and find the living room bare.

    The fact that her father promised to give her mother, sole, uncontested custody of the daughter and the home in return for the furniture is established within the primary text, as is the fact that at that point, he had been spending most of his time in New York where he had an apartment for work purposes.

    Of course, that’s just a rough summation of the idea, it is most likely going to be heavily refined before I ever even come close to writing it.

  8. B. Macon 09 Dec 2009 at 4:00 pm

    I’m not sure I would recommend Firebreather, actually. It was a trainwreck. Certainly a candidate for one of the worst-illustrated series I’ve ever seen.

    I like the tragicomedy of the child trying to sabotage the moving operation but only helping them. Very smooth and believable. Also, if half of all US marriages end in divorce, I imagine this is an experience that a lot of people can relate to.

  9. Neilon 24 Jul 2012 at 5:35 pm

    I have an idea as to explain, Derek, my main character’s backstory. Specifically, the backstory is brought up when he’s put up against Timore, one of the villain’s lead individuals. His power enables him to manipulate fear. Specifically, he can cause an individual to relieve their worst fear, trapping them inside of it.

    To make a long story short, he traps Derek in his worst fear, which is tied to his backstory. The act in itself renders him powerless and nearly breaks him mentally. Even though he manages to escape, the act in itself has done damage and such Derek begins to doubt himself.

    The extent results in a conversation with Liam, his best friend, about why he was so shaken up, and ultimately he goes and faces the villain again, uncertain. Upon trapping him in his fear, it is his friend(through radio communicator), who gives him support and coaxes him to face it.

    It’s at that point he escapes the vision and such begins to defeat the foe into submission. In any event, how’s that for explaining backstory? Sure, it will require images of the specific traumatic event, but the explanation will not be a full flashback.

  10. B. McKenzieon 25 Jul 2012 at 12:55 am

    “To make a long story short, he traps Derek in his worst fear, which is tied to his backstory.” Hmm, okay, but a few villains (notably Scarecrow and Dr. Destiny) have tried this against Batman and the Justice League. I’d recommend at least taking the fear in a different direction (e.g. preferably away from the fear of failure and/or getting others killed). That said, if the scene/memory is memorable, I think it would be a solid way to incorporate backstory into the story proper.

  11. Neilon 25 Jul 2012 at 6:49 am

    @ B. Mckenzie

    First off, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. In regards to the fear, it’s actually more of a phobia. When Derek was young, he’d witnessed his father, who was drunk, assault his mother. Given he was in a darkened closet, the trauma induced caused him to have a fear of darkened, confined spaces. Having said that, the fear inducement would pit him in a similar scenario, where’s he in a completely dark place, confined area. This would usher back memories to the event, and such it would drive him mad. Having said that, I am worried though the scene might be too sudden, or that’s something done before.

    Please don’t get me wrong; the idea of him being apprehensive about the dark, is hinted quite a bit. Particularly, when he’s out on patrol, and when he and Liam are in conversation. However, do you have any other tips or suggestions, so as to make this scene prominent? The basis being this is a very pinnacle moment in the story. Again, thank you very much for the advice.

  12. Dream Catcheron 23 Mar 2016 at 12:01 pm

    I made a comment on another post about the backstory of my character “The Dream Catcher.”

    The backstory is not necessarily important to this description so I’ll leave most of it out. What’s important to know is that my hero’s powers come from the fact that his mother took a large dosage of a hallucinogenic drug while pregnant with him, giving him an ability to create delusions in people’s minds that aid him in his private investigation and superhero work.

    Given the mental/psychological nature of the character and his admittedly dark origin, one way to work in backstory by the character having vivid nightmares of his past. This also advances the understanding of his character as a figure that is haunted by his history. His nightmares may or may not be accurate, since he was in utero for the truly traumatic events, but given his mind’s imaginative workings, creates an ominous reenactment of the scenario.

    Another easy and more compelling way to add depth to the back story is by having conversations with his mentally deteriorating mother. The backstory would showcase their close relationship, while also being interrupted wildly by her mental problems, and giving another slightly unreliable edge to the backstory.

  13. B. McKenzieon 23 Mar 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Hello, DC. I think the dark origin story here actually sounds sort of promising. Normally, I’m not really keen on origin stories where the main character is a non-actor (e.g. Superman being saved as an infant or the circumstances of a character’s birth), but I anticipate that the high-octane darkness and family dynamic will create enough problems for him moving forward that it’ll give you opportunities to develop his personality/choices/voice/etc with them. Whatever else happens, I’m taking it as a given that his background will be more memorably/distinctively dysfunctional than Smallville.

    “Given his mind’s imaginative workings, creates an ominous reenactment of the scenario.” Well, his mother was viciously assaulted. Are there any non-ominous scenarios? (If you’re going for dark/ominous speculation, what he wonders about his mother could be much darker than anything he might imagine about the rapist. E.g. maybe in his grimmest moments he wonders whether his mother was more involved with the assailant than she’s let on and/or whether there were any ways she could have prevented it.



    Not a huge deal, but when you’re ready to submit to publishers, I’d suggest reevaluating “Dream Catcher.” Given the tone of the story, I’d go grimmer/darker and/or more conversational. Maybe something from NA folklore? E.g. when things get really freaky, it might remind some Native American of Rugaru (i.e. a monster that the mere sight of which turns people into monsters*) or Chebollock.

    *Given that the darkness in his life seems to be contagious (e.g. from the rapist to his mother to him), this might be thematically useful.

  14. Dream Catcheron 23 Mar 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the feedback.

    I do intend to have some darker/horror elements to the series (I intend to combine some aspects of the Native American legend of the Wendigo and the resulting psychosomatic Wendigo psychosis with Kuru, the real-life human equivalent of mad-cow disease in humans).

    The location is a fictional Indian reservation, where rape is particularly prevalent as well as having above average rates of violent crime.

    Despite all the really dark elements I’ve described though, the series itself will be a slightly lighter mood, with the dark parts coming in and out to not make it overly heavy.

    As far as names, The Dream Catcher is only the name he goes by as a superhero, which he does not start off really being. The start of the series has a larger focus on his PI work under his given name, Dakota Jones (feedback on that name would be appreciated as well).

    He also has an “Indian name” that only his mother calls him once or twice, which is used to lighten their situation up some.

  15. Dream Catcheron 23 Mar 2016 at 7:48 pm

    **When I said rape and violent crime are particularly prevalent, I was reffering to actual Indian reservations, not just my fictional reservation. I also didn’t explicitly mention, although it’s heavily implied, that all of these characters are Native American.

  16. B. McKenzieon 23 Mar 2016 at 10:11 pm

    “I do intend to have some darker/horror elements to the series… Despite all the really dark elements I’ve described though, the series itself will be a slightly lighter mood, with the dark parts coming in and out to not make it overly heavy.” Between the sexual assaults and the mentally deteriorating mother, I think you’ve sort of got your work cut out on “slightly lighter.” Also, hallucinogens, recurring nightmares, psychosis, and a really gritty/hopeless setting, etc. When you say slightly lighter, could you elaborate a bit? The name “Dakota Jones” sort of suggests a pulpish adventure vibe*, but it feels like your intended destination may not line up with the tracks you’re laying.

    *Your eventual publisher may change the name for legal and/or creative reasons. It’s pretty similar to Indiana Jones, and generally I wouldn’t get that similar to a billion-dollar character unless parody/commentary is critical.

  17. Dream Catcheron 23 Mar 2016 at 11:34 pm

    First of all, I did not even think twice about the similarity between Dakota/Indiana Jones until you mentioned it *mind blown* Haha. I’ll keep it for a placeholder and change it later. As far as “lighter” I don’t mean lighter than an average comic book, but lighter than the details I’ve previously given might paint it to be.

    I guess the best way to put it might be that’s it’s not particularly brooding. If you’ve ever seen the show Longmire (which is currently on Netflix) that would be a pretty good equivalent of the tone I think the series could have. There is going to be a character on the state police force that is a much lighter character that basically partners with Dakota as his only close friend.

    It may also help to know that Dakota has come back to the reservation to make it a better and safer place, with the inciting incident of the first issue probably being asked to investigate what the police have ruled a suicide, an apparent overdose on the same drug his mom used years ago.

    Although this has the dark element of getting revenge on his father or a possible copycat, some of that darkness will be put on the back-burner as it shifts it’s focus to the traditional mystery/detective story with the twist of his powers and the extra procedural issues that arise from the complex jurisdictional problems the reservation faces.

    I don’t have a huge problem with it being darker and grittier though, so if the story takes me there I won’t try to “fix it” to be lighter.

    I really appreciate the feedback. I’ve only really begun to flesh this out over the past few days. I’ve had a very limited concept of this character for a while, but this site has inspired me to actually try and see this thing through.

    How’s Taxman, by the way? I really like your style of humor and would love to read it if it’s out.

  18. Dream Catcheron 24 Mar 2016 at 12:33 am

    Which of these names, if any, gives you the best PI vibe?

    Dakota Brown
    Dakota Phillips
    Dakota Black
    Dakota James

    Or perhaps replace Dakota with the similar NA name Takoda with any of those surnames? Takoda definitely has a little more NA flavor without going into the “Chankoowashtay” territory (a first name from the Souix tribe).

  19. Nature Kingon 24 Mar 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Dakota & Takoda both sound great with Brown. And since you’re going with a Native American heritage, it makes sense that his last name is brown because of the whites back then assimilating the natives into their culture. Besides, never trust a person with two first names: Dakota James/Dakota Phillips

  20. B. McKenzieon 25 Mar 2016 at 9:16 am

    Of the options listed, I like Takota Black and Takota Brown best. For slightly badass surnames common among NAs, I’d also throw in Walker, Wood/s, Burn/s, and Hunt (or for distinctively NA names, Blackwater, Locklear, Largo, or Benally).



    “It may also help to know that Dakota has come back to the reservation to make it a better and safer place, with the inciting incident of the first issue probably being asked to investigate what the police have ruled a suicide, an apparent overdose on the same drug his mom used years ago.” I like the setup. It seems like a natural starting point, and one that ties together well with the character’s backstory.

    “I don’t have a huge problem with it being darker and grittier though, so if the story takes me there I won’t try to “fix it” to be lighter.” It sounds like it’ll probably be slightly-to-somewhat darker than, say, Batman, but if that’s what you’re going for, I don’t think it’ll be a huge problem.



    “I really appreciate the feedback. I’ve only really begun to flesh this out over the past few days. I’ve had a very limited concept of this character for a while, but this site has inspired me to actually try and see this thing through.” Awesome! Good luck.

    “How’s Taxman, by the way? I really like your style of humor and would love to read it if it’s out.” Definitely not out yet. Which is a bit depressing. At this point, I’ve already had to have the GWB bobblehead on Orange’s shelf recolored as Obama, and that’ll give you an idea of how long ago I started/stopped/restarted/restopped working on this. (In retrospect, I should have specified which presidents to use, staying away from modern presidents because they tend to be more politically controversial).

  21. Dream Catcheron 25 Mar 2016 at 1:08 pm

    “Definitely not out yet. Which is a bit depressing.” Dang. I’m sure it will be published eventually and I will read it whenever it does!

    “At this point, I’ve already had to have the GWB bobblehead on Orange’s shelf recolored as Obama, and that’ll give you an idea of how long ago I started/stopped/restarted/restopped working on this. (In retrospect, I should have specified which presidents to use, staying away from modern presidents because they tend to be more politically controversial).” If Trump wins you’ll have to break out the Orange. Haha. Given Agent Orange’s over-the-top American Gator map, you could probably sneak a sly reference about Trump in somewhere else (I don’t think a comedic hit on Trump from a character like Agent Orange would be overly controversial.)

    I also wanted to ask you about another hero I’ve been mulling over that is a little less distinct and original in some ways.

    I don’t have a name for him yet, but he is blind and his dad, who is a famous scientist, attempts to use some sort of bat DNA extract to give him the ability to use echolocation.

    It works, but also turns the child into a hideous human-bat creature. The dad’s lawyer, who grew up with him and is a family friend, tells him there is no way he could justify the father’s actions in court.

    Horrified at what he’s done to his son and faced with the prospect of going to jail, he decides to fake he and his son’s deaths, leaving his house, money, and the care of his son to the lawyer (who becomes a full-time caretaker).

    The kid grows up with a really strong bond to the lawyer, but otherwise ostracized from society. He realizes there are very few options he can take for the world to accept him, and decides to use his increased size and strength, echolocation, and ability to fly to fight crime.

    Despite the semi-dark backstory, this character is actually a wisecrack that fights crime in costas and bermuda shorts (perhaps I’ll base it in L.A.). I was thinking about beginning his story with him capturing a criminal, but it reads at first like a cliche horror movie where the criminal is cast as the protagonist being hunted by the monster, only to have that character walk out of the shadows.

    Then it goes onto a sort of montage of how he patrols the city (with the description boxes containing lyrics to “sunglasses at night”).

    The inciting incident comes next with him chilling on a roof in a lawn chair (radio playing the song). A cop comes up, unable to see him fully at first, telling him this is a private roof and that he shouldn’t be up here. As the hero stands up, the cop is frightened and pulls his gun.

    Hero: “Whoa there officer, I don’t think this situation calls for the use of lethal force, now. It’s the skin color, isn’t it?” (said sarcastically. The character was also originally black). The cop fires and shoots him, maybe twice, and an animal instinct of self-defense comes in and our hero kills the officer.

    This devastates our hero as he does not want to hurt or kill anyone, least of all a cop, but knows the officer would have killed him if he hadn’t defended himself. Bodycam footage is released, but the kookiness and humor of the hero is pretty quickly overshadowed by the viciousness he shows after the cop shoots.

    This begins a strange legal drama with his lawyer/godfather defending him for the first issue.

    What do you think? Is that original enough of a take to be distinctive? The superhero lawyer is cool to me because it gives a way for me to possibly tie in my other heros for a team-based comic.

    Also, how do you go about finding an artist?

  22. B. McKenzieon 25 Mar 2016 at 5:26 pm

    “Given Agent Orange’s over-the-top American Gator map…” There is also an overwhelmingly strong correlation between countries with American alligators and crocodiles on life span, GDP per capita, and probably murder rates. (If U.S. murder rates aren’t significantly lower, it’s probably the geese’s fault 😉 ).



    “It works, but also turns the child into a hideous human-bat creature. The dad’s lawyer, who grew up with him and is a family friend, tells him there is no way he could justify the father’s actions in court. Horrified at what he’s done to his son and faced with the prospect of going to jail, he decides to fake he and his son’s deaths, leaving his house, money, and the care of his son to the lawyer (who becomes a full-time caretaker).” The son sounds sort of passive here, and I feel like the disfiguration may make it harder for him to be an interesting character moving forward (e.g. few social interactions? limited non-combat options?*). It’s possible that working him onto a team would help, but would he have the personality to do something more than tag along with more interesting characters?

    *Any options “being persecuted” and “interacting with unusually open-minded humans”? (Neither one of which would give you much room for distinctive characterization, I feel).



    For finding an artist, I’d recommend paying a few prospects to do a small assignment (e.g. concept art on the bat character), and then proceed with the best one.

  23. Dream Catcheron 25 Mar 2016 at 10:28 pm

    “The son sounds sort of passive here” One of the issues I am having. I could make him the one who pushed for the experiment. Maybe the dad refused several times because he was worried about this issue, but gave in to his son’s demands. (Placeholder name for son will be Batty McGee). Or maybe Batty actively pushed against it but his dad insisted it was safe. Perhaps Batty struggled while taking the injection and caused his dad to hit the wrong vein.

    “I feel like the disfiguration may make it harder for him to be an interesting character moving forward (e.g. few social interactions? limited non-combat options?” A major theme of the character is his loneliness, although his bond with the lawyer/godfather is extremely tight and gives him a good social outlet for deep feelings.

    Otherwise possible dramatic conflicts may include: internal conflict from the instinct that causes him to act animalistic in self-defense, the aforementioned legal drama that could set a precedent in the universe for superhero protections from litigation, and a continuous divide between the city’s citizen’s on whether he’s a monster or a hero (which is a slight twist on the standard-fare vigilante motif).

    I do think he’d end up working fairly well on a team with his personality. I actually drew up a concept myself and think the character could be made to look likable. http://i.imgur.com/xtiETDN.jpg

  24. B. McKenzieon 25 Mar 2016 at 11:17 pm

    “Maybe the dad refused several times because he was worried about this issue, but gave in to his son’s demands. Or maybe BMG actively pushed against it but his dad insisted it was safe.” Of the two scenarios, I think the son being the one insisting on the surgery is more promising moving forward, because I suspect it’d develop the son more (and would also give him more of a role in his origin). If the father is the driving force behind the surgery, I think you’d get more character development out of this if the father is a major character moving forward.



    “A major theme of the character is his loneliness, although his bond with the lawyer/godfather is extremely tight and gives him a good social outlet for deep feelings.” Does the lawyer/surrogate father have the personality to make his involvement interesting? (E.g. Pa Kent definitely doesn’t; I would suggest getting as far away from “generically good parent” as possible — e.g. some degree of conflict between the 2?). If not, to avoid overrelying on a single character for creating dialogue opportunities, it may help to get other characters involved (e.g. other mutants, humans with a professional interest in mutants, a friend he had from before turning into a mutant, someone that didn’t like him all that much before the incident but is coming around, etc).

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