writers group

Backstory: The B-Word

writers group critique group

By Jennifer L. Rogala
Writer's Infusion Critiquer

Let’s talk about the use of the B-word: when it’s appropriate to use, and when it’s not.  I’m talking about Backstory. Or, as my friend David Sahl calls it, “Aching Back” Story.
Backstory is your characters’ experiences that occur before the start of your current story. These circumstances shape how characters think and respond to situations within your narrative.  Consider your character’s fatal flaw or weakness. This flaw is the inner issue they must continue to face and eventually overcome to accomplish their goal. At some point, you may want to clue the reader in as to how the character developed this flaw. Where in the story this information is revealed can add emotional depth, or pull your reader out of the story.
Stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aren’t good examples for this discussion since the past shares equal time with the present story.  In Dickens’ classic tale, the past is every bit as much of the story as the present.  I’m limiting this discussion to stories that remain primarily in the present, but dip into the past every now and then.
Readers don’t need to know your character’s history at the start. Allow a slow reveal. It’s okay, even preferred. Keep the story moving forward.  Withholding information can add suspense, curiosity, and anticipation, which makes readers keep turning pages. Once the reader cares, the backstory will be more meaningful.
If I start a story about how 12-year-old Joey developed a fear of heights when he was eight, after a turbulent flight home from Disneyland, why would you care? But, what if I tell the story of shy Joey who desperately wants to ask Millie to the school dance? He gets invited to go swimming at the local pond, and Millie happens to be there. All the other boys are jumping off a steep cliff into the pond, and Millie is impressed. Once Joey’s anxiety sets in, then, the scary flight home from Disneyland is fresh in his mind.  Now, his fear of heights is important, and adds tension, because something is at stake. Will he be able to jump off the cliff and impress Millie? Or will he be embarrassed in front of everyone, and lose any chance that Millie will go to the dance with him?
If you start your novel with backstory, you risk not engaging your readers, and they’ll close the book. It’s tempting to start with what you think they need to know first, but backstory is rarely done well as an info dump at the beginning of your novel. 
When used wisely, backstory will add depth to your story.  Peppering it into your novel only when essential to the current scene will enhance the reader’s appetite for knowledge.  Placing it at the right time in your story, can increase tension, reveal motivations, and impact your characters’ and readers’ emotions.
When tempted to add backstory, flashback scenes, or snippets of memory to your story, ask yourself these questions: 
-    Does the reader need to know this now?  If not, wait until this information becomes crucial to the story.
-    If I take it out, does the scene still move the plot forward?  Does the story still make sense? If yes, then this is probably the wrong spot in your narrative to add the backstory.
-    Does this flashback stop the momentum of the story?  If yes, you are risking pulling readers out of the story and breaking the spell they are under. There better be a good reason for doing it at that moment.
-    Who wants to add this backstory in now, the character or the author? The right answer is always the character.
Your characters have histories, and as the author, you need to know them. But, your reader doesn’t. And, our characters may not be ready to reveal their history, either. Let your characters drive when and if something from their past should be revealed. In the case of Joey waiting for his turn to jump off the cliff into the pond, he’s anxious, terrified, and feeling all the emotions he experienced on the plane. His memory is triggered. Joey brought the flashback in, not the author.
I have a fabulous recipe for Pumpkin bisque. The instructions say to add cream at the simmering stage, refrigerate overnight, and reheat when ready to serve.  Instead, I wait, and add the cream during the reheating step. By delaying the addition of the cream until it’s absolutely necessary, the taste and texture of the bisque is much better. 
Listen to your characters. Trust your readers. Then, the backstory in your novel will be like the cream added at the perfect time to make savory bisque. And, your readers will ask for seconds.

Little Hypocrite in the Big City

By Jennifer L. Rogala
Writer's Infusion Critiquer

Several years ago, I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic Little House in the Big Woods. I don’t remember loving or hating the book when I first read it way back in the fourth grade, but I was surprised by my horrified reaction to the book after reading the first chapter as an adult. I didn’t know how my animal-loving kids would react, or if I would even let them read it.
The book starts with five-year-old Laura describing the family’s preparation for the coming winter. The prep is necessary for their survival and takes weeks to complete. One task is butchering the pig. Laura doesn’t want to miss out on Butchering Time because it’s “great fun” for everyone - except the pig.
First, they slaughter the pig by slicing its throat. Then Pa boils the body until it’s scalded, scrapes any hair off the skin with a butcher knife, hangs the carcass from a tree, and carves out its insides. Then comes the “great fun” part. Pa takes the pig’s bladder, blows it up like a balloon, and ties the end with a string so that Laura and her sister Mary can play ball with it. They roast the pig’s tail on a stick and eat it the way we do marshmallows at a bonfire. My first reaction to this scene was horror. My kids would be devastated when the pig dies. Remember Babe? Remember Wilbur, Piglet, and Porky?
The gore continues when Ma takes over. She scrapes the pig’s skull and boils it so all of the meat falls off the bone. She finely chops the meat, seasons it, and lets it cool. This is called head cheese, which is a jellied, seasoned loaf made of the pig’s head meat - including the tongue and brains (Eww!). Ma chops anything that’s left and molds it into sausage balls. The bones go to the dog. Nothing is wasted, and Laura ate everything on her plate. I can’t even get my kids to eat the crust of their sandwiches.
By the end of the two-day pig slaughter extravaganza, they have bacon, sausages, head cheese (Eww!), jars of lard, cracklings, and kegs of white, salted pork. In the attic hangs smoked hams and shoulders.
Although my initial reaction to the pig slaughter scene was horror, by the time I finished the book, I had a renewed appreciation for pioneers like the Ingalls family and the hardships they faced just to survive. My children would learn so much from the Ingalls' hard work and perseverance.
I’m lucky to live in the big city. While I have the benefit of driving to the supermarket, Pa had to walk six miles through the snow carrying furs on his back to trade for sugar and salt at the closest store. My kids can grab a candy bar from the checkout aisle, but Laura didn’t get her first piece of candy until she was five, and it was so special to her that she couldn’t bring herself to eat it. And while my family has access to forms of entertainment that are too numerous to list, Laura had only one doll, no books, and was stuck indoors for three months every winter.
I realized what a hypocrite I was. What was I thinking? I mean, I eat bacon at breakfast, grilled chicken for lunch, and turkey on Thanksgiving. I buy a real tree every year for Christmas. I wear leather shoes and suede jackets. I take medicines that were tested on mice or rabbits. I watch football and admire the beautiful spiral Tom Brady puts on the pigskin.
I’m not about to switch to a vegan diet or clear out my medicine cabinet. But I have found myself reevaluating what I considered inconveniences in my life. Tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, and loading the dishwasher don’t seem so daunting anymore. And yes, my daughters will read the whole Little House series. Shame on me. I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, and I was considering creating a do-not-read list for my kids. I was going to, gulp, censor a Classic like Little House in the Big Woods. Now that was the biggest horror for me.