I once heard literary agent Donald Maass give a workshop on his Writing the Breakout Novel. One thing he said I will always remember -- backstory is called backstory because it belongs in the back of the story.
Too many beginning writers make one big mistake -- loading their first scene, first chapter, first quarter of the book with way too much backstory. They feel that the reader won't understand their protagonist, their plot, their world, unless they TELL ALL upfront. However, this usually deadens the forward movement, the energy of the story, and leaves the reader without any urgent mystery to propel them onward.
One of the most important mysteries you should be pushing your reader to discover is the compelling backstory you’ve withheld. Think about JKR. Her masterful withholding of backstory is the energy that thrust the reader not only through the first book, but the next several to come as well.
Take a look at these key Harry Potter series mysteries, based on backstory, that readers were dying to know:
- What actually happened in Godric's Hollow?
- Which side was Snape truly on?
- Why did Voldemort want to kill a one-year-old baby ?
- What did Dumbledore see in the Mirror of Erised?
Online forums and fan conferences were filled with speculation regarding these key questions. Their unanswered mystery flamed readers' interests. Fans just had to know the answers, even if they invented the answers themselves through blog posts or fan fiction.
JK Rowling once said in an interview that she had rewritten the first chapter of Philosopher's Stone at least ten times because the earlier versions gave everything away. If you'd put all those versions together, the whole mystery of the series would have been revealed. Thank goodness she revised! One huge reason Harry Potter was such a phenomenal success was due to JKR's witholding of backstory. She did not release it until her readers were beyond dying to know!
In my own writing, I've found that it's very tricky to hold onto my backstory. It seems more natural to me to just get it all out there as soon as possible. I'm not sure if it's because it's in my nature to tell everything I know. Or if, perhaps, I'm not trusting the reader enough to understand what I'm trying to say without explaining everything in excruciating detail.
Even though Southern Fried Wiccan is not a mystery, I still had a couple of mysterious elements, mostly regarding the backstory of Cilla's grandmother. I held off revealing this backstory until about 2/3 into the book where it would have the greatest emotional impact on Cilla and affect a key decision she's making. However, in my WIP, Call of the Jinn, mystery is a much greater part of the story, and I find myself struggling to walk that tightrope between revealing too much while not leaving the reader confused.
When unloading backstory, at least in the beginning of your story, less is more. Withhold as much as possible without leaving your reader confused. Explain just enough to have the current action make sense but to keep a question pushing your reader onward. Then, dribble the backstory in as necessary, in bits and pieces, carefully woven in. Preferably, release enticing nougats in dramatic ways and only after the reader's curiosity is at a fever pitch.
What about you? How do you approach revealing backstory in your own writing?
Note: This post is revised from an earlier version posted June 2011.