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The Backstory, Or: Just Where The Heck Does It All Start?

  • By Steve Dempster
  • Published 03/24/2008
  • Fiction

If you have decided to write a novel, the story that exists within it extends way beyond the book itself. This ‘backstory’ is what helps give your book depth: here are a few points to keep in mind about the ‘past’ of the book you’re writing. A novel may encompass any period of time, from an hour or two to many centuries. Yet this span of time, no matter how great, is finite; it has a beginning and an end that coincide with the start and finish of your book. Yet we all know that time itself is limitless – so what happened to make your story happen? This act – the incident that sends your hero or heroine zooming along their roller-coaster ride through your book – is not the start of your story, though it is the event that starts your story. Let me try to explain this, on the face of it, baffling statement. The event that starts your story is the one that turns your lead character’s life upside down. This event, decided upon by you, can be almost anything, depending on the story you wish to tell – aliens land and invade earth; he or she loses their job; war breaks out unexpectedly; they are kidnapped and have to escape – virtually anything at all. Its sole reason for happening is to jump-start your story into life and set the ball rolling – without it, there would be no story to tell. Yet the story doesn’t start at this point. You see, your story is made up of two main elements. The first is your plot – the second is your characters. In order for these characters to be believable and to have ‘life’, they cannot just spring into existence from nowhere. Now I realise that your characters only have the life you give them but you, in your book, are only writing about a certain part of their life – not usually all of it (unless you are writing another Forsyte Saga!).

It therefore follows that your characters must have had a ‘life’ before we meet them within the pages of your book. All of them were born somewhere, grew up, went to school, fell in love, got married, had kids – the no

rmal, everyday things that happen. Or maybe not. Maybe that even-tempered guy who in your book runs a floristry business once did time for robbery. Or that little old lady who you have decided will sell coffee in the mall was a member of the French Resistance during WW2. Crazy? Hey, much crazier things have happened, believe me! The point, however, is that suddenly these two characters have added depth. They now have a ‘backstory’ – something that happened to them in the past that shapes their life now. It’s imperative that all your main characters, certainly, should have a comprehensive backstory, or there’s a chance that your story may lose it’s reason for being. Imagine: Chris bangs open the batwing doors in the saloon, stalks inside and comes to rest in front of Bart. ‘Your time’s up, pal’ he snarls, pulls out a big .45 revolver and shoots Bart dead. Dramatic, yes – but why did he do it? People don’t usually behave this way, even in times when life was counted as cheaper than it is now. However, consider this: Chris has known Bart for years. Maybe Bart stole something belonging to Chris? Land? A gold mine? A girl? He’s given Bart many chances to make amends because once, years ago, they were good friends. Bart won’t give the thing he stole back and just recently he’s added insult to injury by stealing something else belonging to Chris. Result – Chris shoots him dead. This embryonic plotline shows how Chris and Bart’s backstory is essential. Without it, the scene above would have had one man shoot another for no reason we could think of – baffling for a reader and, in the end, uninteresting. As the opening scene in your novel it would also be mystifying but, when the backstory is fed to the reader, the reason becomes clear.

The backstory to a character – and the way each character relates to another – is the mortar that cements the bricks of your novel together. Bring your characters to life by giving them a past and you will ensure that your readers will see them as real people. Once this happens, your readers start to care about your characters – and you have the makings of a novel that no-one will be able to put down until the last page!



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