How much page-space you devote to building backstory depends on what type of story you’re telling and how you want to develop your lead characters. There’s no one-size-fits-all backstory formula, but there are some pro tips that can help you strike a masterful balance between What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.
When I’m working on a manuscript or reading a book for pleasure, here’s how I think of backstory:
- The more complicated or developed the backstory, the more I expect it to impact the current story.
- The simpler or less-developed the backstory, the less I expect it to impact the current story.
That’s because the more page-space you devote to something, the louder you’re shouting at the reader, “Pay attention to this! It’s important!” If it turns out not to have been important, readers have every right to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck was the point of all that wasted page-space. That’s Page Economy 101.
What do I mean by “impact the current story”? I mean affect the plot. And by plot, I mean the external arc. Remember that all stories have an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart) and an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist). A lightly developed backstory might inform the internal arc, explaining why a character is they way they are. But with a heavily developed backstory, the reader isn’t wrong to expect a big plot tie-in later on.
Here’s an example: If you briefly mention somewhere in the setup that your protagonist used to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, then readers think “this guy is caring and capable” and move on. But if you devote lots of page-space to his backstory (how his father taught him to swing a hammer, how he wanted to be an architect but couldn’t afford the schooling, how he got involved with Habitat, all the many life lessons he learned and wonderful people he met along the way), then my story-brain starts whirring. It now feels set up for a third act or final battle that can only be solved by someone with his unique set of knowledge, skills, resources, connections, or experiences. In other words, it feels set up to expect that you’re planting an ace up his sleeve that will get played at a critical, climactic moment.
Wound Events vs. Inciting Incidents
One key reason backstory is so important is that it’s where the wound event lives. (The idea of a wound event has been explored extensively by story experts like Michael Hauge and John Truby, so check them out if you want a deeper dive.) I’ve worked with lots of writers who’ve never heard of a wound event, or who confuse their wound event with their inciting incident, which can wreak havoc on a story’s structure later on. So to clear it up in the most basic terms:
- The wound event happens before page one and kicks off the internal arc.
- The inciting incident happens on or after page one and kicks off the external arc.
In other words, the wound event is a single, critical backstory event that weighed your protagonist down with whatever emotional baggage they’re already carrying when they walk onto page one of your novel. It’s this emotional wound they must overcome by the novel’s end as a direct result of the events that make up the novel’s external arc. In other words, the internal and external arcs are intertwined and resolve together.
Here’s a secret: Many prologues in both novels and movies exist because the writer wants to get the wound event in front of the audience first thing. This is an A-OK reason to open your story with a prologue. You’ll know you’ve experienced a wound-event prologue if chapter one starts with a leap forward in time—the ol’ “one year later” technique (though it doesn’t have to be one year). Examples of movies that open with a wound-event prologue are Return to Me and The Ritual.
The Takeaway for Plotting and Revision
What does all this mean for you as a storysmith? A wound event, because it is both structurally significant and thematically meaningful, is the least amount of backstory you should focus your efforts on developing. It might also be the most amount of backstory you should develop. Again, it depends. But here’s where I want you to pull out those pages I asked you to write last month. Whether you feel like you wrote too much or not enough, my only question is this: Can you identify a solid wound event in what you wrote? A wound event that resulted in the emotional baggage your protagonist will shed or otherwise confront head-on at the end of your story?
- If no, can you scratch what you wrote and start building a meaningful backstory from the wound event up?
- If yes, can you cut all the other backstory that’s not related to the wound event?
- If cutting all the other backstory feels difficult, can you articulate how all of it will affect your plot? Yea verily, why your plot—not your character development or protagonist’s internal arc—will fall apart without it?
I already mentioned that the wound event sometimes shows up as a prologue. It can also be a flashback. Or it doesn’t have to be a scene at all. It can be something your protagonist discloses in dialogue. Or something you reveal to the reader through your protagonist’s internalizations. How and when you reveal your story’s wound event is up to you. But one piece of advice I love is that the writer should write the wound event—not necessarily to include in the novel, but so that she can stand beside her protagonist as he endures that event. So that she can bear witness to that formative moment, and then later imbue his scenes with the raw emotional residue it left behind.
The Takeaway for Querying, Pitching, and Opening Pages
Finally, when it comes time to pitch or query your novel, lean away from backstory. Sure, a sentence or maybe two of setup might be a necessary foundation for your actual pitch, and that’s OK, but the sooner you get to the story story—the one that starts on page one—the better off you’ll be. I’ve read query letters where half to all of the proverbial ink on the page was devoted to explaining everything about What Came Before. I’ve also sat through entire pitches where at the end of the eight-minute appointment, the writer is still talking about their hero’s or world’s backstory. These are missed opportunities! After all, the agent has their ear open for something they can sell. Story sells. Concept sells. Backstory alone does not.
Likewise, in your opening pages, avoid big, long, explainy, expository passages meant to lay out your novel’s backstory. That’s all stuff that can (and, for many agents and editors, should) be more elegantly woven in only after the story is rolling forward and gaining compelling momentum. Your opening pages are an agent or editor’s first impression of you and your work, and if those pages read like a history textbook, you might be in trouble. Open in scene, with character, setting, and conflict, you’ll have a much better chance of engaging and hooking the reader.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic