America’s Favorite Suspense Authors on the Rules of Fiction: Never Mind the @#$%&! Backstory
By Anthony J. Franze
In this series, author Anthony J. Franze interviews other suspense writers about their views on “the rules” of fiction. For the past few months, Anthony has profiled authors who taught at CraftFest, the International Thriller Writers’ writing school held every July during the organization’s annual ThrillerFest conference. In this final CraftFest segment, Anthony discusses the perils of “backstory” with several CraftFest teachers, including James Bruno, Lincoln Child, Karen Dionne, J.T. Ellison, Jamie Freveletti, Andrew Kaplan, Douglas Preston, and Alexandra Sokoloff.
“Never mind the f**king backstory!” That’s what award-winning author Alexandra Sokoloff said when I asked her and other teachers at this year’s CraftFest about their best advice for newer writers. “For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole backstory in the first ten pages.” But that’s just wrong, Sokoloff said. And she was not alone. Writer after writer who taught at CraftFest identified “too much backstory” as the main problem they see in the work of aspiring scribes.
So what is backstory? Why do so many newer writers misuse it? And, more important, what’s the fix? Fortunately, the CraftFest teachers—some of the most acclaimed authors in suspense—had some answers.
What is Backstory?
Merriam-Webster’s defines backstory as “a story that tells what led up to the main story.” Karen Dionne, the author of “Boiling Point” who’s written about backstory for Writer’s Digest, had a more precise definition: “ ‘Backstory’ refers to the characters’ history and other story elements that underlie the situation at the start of the book. Backstory helps to establish the setting and makes the reader care about what happens to the characters.”
So what’s wrong with that? Dionne said that answering readers’ questions too early and too easily in the opening pages takes away a large part of the incentive for them to keep reading. Further, “by definition, backstory takes the story backwards. Whether we employ flashbacks, character musings and recollections, or long passages of exposition to reveal what came before, every instance of backstory stops our novel’s forward momentum.”
Why Do Newer Writers So Often Misuse Backstory?
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the #1 New York Times bestselling “dynamic duo” (see Suspense Magazine, Jan. 2013, Vol. 042), said, “The problem we see again and again is that newer writers confuse backstory with character. In other words, instead of developing a character by showing us how he or she reacts, talks, does things, and relates to other people, the writer develops character by giving us the character’s backstory.” Preston and Child explained that “character in a novel comes out through speech, action, thought, dress, and habit. The fact that a character is a recovering alcoholic with authority issues who lost his parents as a child in a boating accident, for example, tells us nothing about the person himself.”
Jamie Freveletti, the international bestselling author of “Dead Asleep,” identified a more fundamental reason for the backstory problem: “The normal progression when one tells a story is to begin from the beginning, which means that a writer is hardwired to start with backstory.”
So What’s the Fix?
Knowing the causes of the backstory problem helps identify some solutions. For instance, since writers often misuse backstory as a way to develop their characters, Preston and Child suggest focusing on who the character is in the present action. “How does the character talk? Look like? React? Dress? What kind of music does the character listen to? How does the person eat? Does the character have any tics or eccentric personal habits? Any physical or speech peculiarities? How does the person actually react in various situations of frustration, danger, success, failure, love, anger? Make a list, even of things that aren’t going to appear in the book. You have to make your character so real that he or she seems even more real to you than actual people you know.”
Karen Dionne added that writers should examine their opening pages with a critical eye and ask: “Does the reader really need to know this fact about the character? Or is this detail something that I find interesting, but isn’t crucial to the story? Will the story fall apart if I withhold this information? If your conclusion is yes, the reader absolutely needs to know a particular detail about the situation or the character, then ask yourself: Does the reader need to know this now, in the opening pages? Or can I reveal it later, after the reader is more engaged with the characters and has fully invested in the story? Is there a better way to introduce this crucial bit of backstory aside from simply relating it? Can I accomplish the same thing more subtly by using hints and innuendos, thus allowing the reader to use their imagination to fill in the gaps and participate more fully in the story?”
Another source of the backstory problem is the writer’s urge to start the story from the beginning, so another way to remedy the backstory problem is to focus on timing. “With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action,” Alexandra Sokoloff said. Sokoloff, who taught her famous “Screenwriting Tricks for Authors” workshop at CraftFest this year, added, “You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie—or more specifically, caught up in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown. We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder—curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.”
J.T. Ellison, the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels, also emphasized timing. “Don’t interrupt your action, dialogue, or narrative to give an aside. Wait until the scene is finished, or allow the dialogue to build suspense with hints at what came before. And try to stay away from large segments of flashback in the middle of scenes. It slows down the action and confuses the reader. When used properly, it builds suspense and tension, and gives the reader just enough information to bring them into the story. Much better than dumping it all on them at once.”
Jamie Freveletti developed a helpful two-step solution that addresses both the character and timing problems that can lead to the misuse of backstory. First, she said, “come up with a great first line or two and remember that it doesn’t have to start at the beginning. In fact, deliberately start at the middle of the action, when something has already occurred. Here’s an example from a recent book I’ve been reading [“Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn]: To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. In these first few lines, you can see that the protagonist’s speech is formal, almost archaic and you’d guess that either the protagonist was highly educated or that the book was not set in present day.”
“Second, once you get the first line down, continue throwing in hints about the character, but deliberately make them unrelated to the natural progression of the story. For example: A few lines down, same page: I leaned as close to him as my corset would permit. This line tells a lot about the character. She’s definitely not present day as corsets are archaic, and she’s not too upset about her husband writhing on the floor. You wonder just how bad is this marriage that she’s leaning over politely while her husband is dying?”
Let’s Not Forget Backstory’s Ugly Cousin (Too Many Details)
Closely related to the backstory problem is the recurring issue of “too much narrative, too little dialogue and action,” said James Bruno, the bestselling author of “Havana Queen.” His advice? “Drop the project for a while, put some distance between writer and manuscript. Use that time to read the masters in one’s genre. And I don’t merely mean reading, but scrutinizing every chapter and every important scene. Analyze carefully how the author builds tension until it explodes.”
Andrew Kaplan, the New York Times bestselling author of the Scorpion spy thriller series, including “Scorpion Deception,” also sees too much “overwriting. Telling me much more than I need to know about a character, his or her history, motivation, what he or she is wearing, the setting; using fifty words where ten will do. Typically accompanied by overdoing (and an over-reliance on) adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and similes.”
Kaplan gave this example of overwriting: Handsome deadly Jack Slater stared bullets at the man in the grey striped Armani suit and French shirt tailored to a tee, wearing a gold Rolex and an attitude to match as he stood by the potted Ficus in the luxurious overstuffed marble lobby of the Peninsula Hotel whom he had come to kill.
“You could easily lose 40 words in that sentence: Slater stared at the man in the hotel lobby he had come to kill.” Kaplan’s fix for the too-many-details problem works well for backstory too: “Try to imagine that your reader knows something about the story. You don’t have to tell everything. In addition, assume that he or she is as smart, knowledgeable, and sophisticated as you are.”
Not all backstory is bad, of course. But given that so many established authors identified backstory as a recurring problem they see in manuscripts, newer writers would be well advised to isolate all instances of backstory in their opening pages and consider cutting them. As Karen Dionne suggests, “When in doubt, take it out.” ■
*Anthony J. Franze is the author of the debut legal thriller, “The Last Justice.” In addition to his writing, Anthony is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a major Washington, D.C. law firm and an adjunct professor of law. Anthony is active in the International Thriller Writers association where he Co-Chairs ITW’s Debut Authors Program, teaches at CraftFest, and is the Assistant Managing Editor of the Big Thrill magazine. Anthony lives in the D.C. area with his wife and three children. Learn more about Anthony at http://www.anthonyfranzebooks.com.