Some writing teachers argue there should be no backstory in your opening chapters because backstory has happened before your narrative begins. They suggest establishing the action first to get readers locked in.
Plot and Structure
More from James Scott Bell in his book, Plot and Structure. Get your copy here.
Create a connection
However, I advocate that in your opening your strategy is to bond your character with the reader. Without that, readers are not going to care about the action. Properly used, backstory can create this emotional attachment. Fiction is, after all, an emotional experience.
I also stress properly used. That means the backstory is marbled within the action, not standing alone demanding to be read. The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
Start with action
Let readers see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s trouble, even minor, and then give them bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if written well) of backstory.
An early Koontz novel (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols), Twilight, opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:
“To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.
But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.”
Koontz bonds us with this lead character through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery that makes us want to keep on reading. But then he gets right back to the action, which is key.
Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She said: “I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic at that point in the story.”
If you can master this skill, you will be well on your way to creating that all-important emotional bond between your reader and your character.
James Scott Bell is the author of the #1 bestselling writing book, Plot & Structure, as well as the suspense collection Watch Your Back. Visit him at www.jamesscottbell.com.