Apr 25 2009
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).