Boring Backstory Blues . . . or Why Present Suspense Matters
True story: I had my tonsils removed when I was four years old and almost bled to death during the operation.
Are you scared for me yet?
Shifting anxious on the edge of your seat?
Excited to learn what happens next?
Of course you’re not because I obviously survived the debacle to type this . . . and to tell you that it doesn’t matter how wonderful you window-dress it because backstory is almost always boring bunk and that’s a fact, Jumping Jack. Every past action taking place in backstory has already happened, so we care little if at all, and especially so if we know the protagonist survives thus removing all suspense from said backstory.
Proof of this exists in movies over the last ten years or so where it’s become a rampant rusty staple to open the movie (usually an indie horror flick of small budget though larger blockbusters are not immune) with a glimpse taken from the movie’s climax, or its All Is Lost point (round 75% in), with the ignorant hope of intriguing the audience with its revealing tease disguised as a promise of things to come. Problem being when you begin your movie showing the protagonist standing with bloody ax in trembling hand, all huffing and puffing and covered in gore with their clothes soaked tatters, we immediately know that at least up to that point in the story the protagonist will survive regardless how dire their situation. And that removes all suspense from every event between.
Let alone we’ve all watched movies where an exciting scene plays out only to reveal moments later the protagonist startling awake from their sweaty nightmare that never really happened while sucking out all suspense from our annoyed bones. Most movies nowadays apply this irritating ploy only in minutes or seconds, though there was a time when the whole “It was all just a dream” reveal at movie’s end was commonplace. The Wizard of Oz is best known for this.
The flop of a Star Wars movie, Solo, is a perfect example of backstory removing all suspense because the entire movie is backstory. No matter how ominous Han’s and Chewbacca’s situation is we already know they won’t die because the rest of the Star Wars franchise exists. Heck, one of the main complaints about Solo was the ‘exciting’ scenes of Han or Chewie enduring near-death experiences that were supposed to but didn’t quite capture our breaths in startled gasps because these scenes possessed zero suspense.
Splicing a glimpse of the climax into the beginning of your story is a parlor trick best left hidden up your amateur’s sleeve to rot. Insecure writers do this for one reason: they’re worried about capturing the audience’s attentions via an otherwise slow start and so think this glimmer of reveal will entice the reader/audience to keep reading/watching for that promise paid in full later on. But what they fail to understand is because of that glimmer revealed at the story’s beginning, they’ve just condemned us to know that everything happening up to that point later in the story is now rendered boring backstory.
There’s a key difference between watching a car accident happen while it plays out before your widening eyes compared to listening to the one whom survived it telling you about it over a cup of steamy joe: suspense.
Present action is full of suspense of the unknown whereas backstory lacks this tasty ingredient because it’s already happened. But backstory is also a necessary component to story because our past tragedies and triumphs are what define us as individual people . . . and so too our characters, especially the protagonist.
One of the worst mistakes a writer can make is opening their novel with heaps and clogs of boring backstory (though the prize pony for worst opener goes to the unknown protagonist gazing at themselves in a mirror on page one while introducing the reader to their musing description of self, bleh!, followed by a close second place of weather description: “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”).
We’ve all committed this amateur writing faux pas at some time or another because it’s only natural that we want to throw everything about our protagonist upon the reader so they can understand what makes them tick and why. But the wrong way to do it is by filling the first five or ten or more pages of your story with past actions not affecting anything in the present.
Though there exists a wonderful workaround to the backstory conundrum and here’s how to go about it without boring your reader to tears.
Write to your writerly heart’s content all the backstory you desire. Page after page if you wish. Vomit it all out. Make each paragraph its own subject while you craft your Unnecessary Prologue in all its shining glory. Number the paragraphs while making sure you’ve repeated nothing, then put boxes beside each one so you can check them off later.
After you get all your static backstory down, now begin your real story with Chapter One, you know, the real reason why the reader is reading your story in the first place, and the real reason why you want to write it.
Throughout your novel-to-be what you’ll do is sprinkle in bits and pieces of your backstory, promising yourself and your potential readers that you shall not inject more than one single paragraph of backstory per chapter. Each time you plug in a backstory paragraph, check off its box so you’ll know you’ve been there and done that and no need to repeat it elsewhere in your real story by beating your reader over their head with the Obvious Stick.
The key to injecting your backstory paragraphs is to do so in medias res, or, in the middle of things, mainly action.
Slip one into snappy sarcastic banter during a daring car chase.
Splice another into fiery protagonist retort as they gain the upper hand when tussling with an antagonist minion while their best friend and loyal sidekick lays bleeding out from a gaping knife wound.
Infuse reflections of a haunting past lover during a steamy sex scene, or maybe even — gasp! — have them accidentally call their new lover by their former lover’s name amid their heated throws of passion, stopping both cold while killing the mood.
Two characters arguing tooth and nail? Let one blurt out a snippet of backstory in a raging outburst only to flinch quiet in face-flushing embarrassment that the confession locked away in their guarded heart somehow managed to spill loose upon their errant tongue.
But whatever you do don’t slap paragraph after paragraph of blocky backstory text onto your pages with the hopes that the reader will plow through all the information, because they may just skim ahead while retaining little if any of that precious backstory you deemed so important or worse yet close your book and choose another more exciting story altogether.
Imagine yourself a world-class chef, your story the reader’s choice cut of steak placed to order and the backstory its delicious seasoning.
Before serving your flame-broiled masterpiece, would you upturn the shaker and pour mounds of salt upon the juicy steak?
Of course not!
Pouring the entire shaker fouls the meat while overwhelming all the delicious mystery of taste.
Instead you sprinkle a little here and a little there — dash, dash, dash — and allow them to savor the flavor of the tenderloin story while the sparse backstory seasonings add just enough spice to entice them for another delectable bite of present action until that glorious climax leaves them satisfied though also wanting more.
Nobody cares that your protagonist’s parents died in a fire and he was raised by abusive foster parents if we have to read it through ten straight eye-rolling pages of boring sulking while he stares lone and longingly at the pained memory in distant reflection as somewhere a plastic bag flutters upon the soughing wind in confusing symbol to the protagonist’s anguished musings. That’s the stuff of crappy college art films because they don’t know any better and think their idiot teachers who paid thousands for a signed piece of paper declaring them academically brilliant assume the more abstract the scene the more ‘artistic’ their ‘genius’ student. Well it ain’t and they’re not. Besides, all those pages of backstory fluff are better summed through a few choice words of dialogue, or showing the protagonist wincing while averting their apprehensive gaze whenever someone brings up their dead parents, or flinching away in a nervous sweat every time they near fire.
Worst of all, the dreaded plague of passive voice infects such weak writing. In passive voice, the subject is no longer performing the action of the verb, instead it’s being acted upon by the verb. Chief among them the deadly killer of interesting fiction ‘was’ in all its poisonous forms.
The beans were eaten by Sam?
Sam ate the beans and that’s that.
Billy was hit by the baseball?
The damn baseball hit Billy upside his stupid head, and serves him right for picking his nose in idle stare instead of paying attention to the game.
As well as passive voice steals present action.
Thomas had fallen down?
And we can remove ‘down’ too because how else would he fall, up? Unless, of course, Thomas is adrift in space, though direction is relative in space as there’s no true ‘up’ or ‘down’ but for one’s own perspective.
The magician’s trick of great writing is to describe the abnormal while limiting the normal to as few words as possible because readers already exist in a place I like to call Reality. And here I’ll reflect upon my own earlier failings as a writer with the perfect example of having my characters sitting ‘down’ or standing ‘up.’ But how else can one sit but down? How else can one stand but up? It’s human nature to assume the normal first, and if I tell you John sat then by instinct you imagine it’s down. The obvious direction is implied by the action performed and therefore has no reason to exist in print because readers are not stupid monkeys needing every mundane thing explained like so:
John picked up his favorite book of poems from the coffee table in front of him with his right hand. He sat down in the plush green chair behind him and crossed his left leg over his right knee. He opened the book to its first vanilla page and began reading while sliding his right pointer finger down each page before turning it to the top of the next, passing the hour.
But if the book our dear John is reading doesn’t matter to the main conflict of his story then it’s better summed up thusly:
John passed an hour by reading his favorite book of poems.
Short and sweet.
By instinct we assume John didn’t stand the entire hour, and nobody cares which specific hand he used to pick the book up, or the position he sat in, or how he turned the pages while passing time, if it doesn’t affect the plot.
Your story’s invisible partner in crime is the reader’s imagination peering over their shoulder while whispering fantastic narration into their ear. Provide it just enough detail to form a mental picture then allow it free rein to personalize as they see fit to the individual reader. Maybe your reader is left-handed, or they prefer reading on their couch instead of a chair, or they hate crossing their legs or perhaps can’t because they’re in a wheelchair.
The right amount of details help project the image of your story, yes, but too many details can also work against you because readers enjoy placing themselves inside the head of a great protagonist.
It’s called Pretend, and actors get paid millions to do it.
It’s also called Escapism, which is the main reason why stories exist in the first place.
Worse yet are all the ‘begans’ most novice writers have their characters doing. Someone always ‘began walking’ or ‘began staring’ or ‘began talking’ or ‘ began running’ or ‘began this’ or ‘began that.’ Ugh! Now look here, Missy, either someone did something or they didn’t. Sure there is a proper time and place for began, but only if the specific action is interrupted. Otherwise, like Nike, just do it.
And even worse still are all the ‘seems’ that only betray the writer’s insecure voice.
The werewolf’s eyes seemed to glow in the dark?
They either glowed or they didn’t.
The wind seemed to wail and moan like a ghost?
And double whammy!
Either the wind wailed and moaned or it didn’t.
And don’t use ‘like’ similes unless you cannot think of better description — which, I assure you, always exists.
Be confident in your writing or your reader won’t.
Here, you be the judge:
Rina awoke in her bed. She sat up and turned the alarm off that read 9:15. She got out of bed and walked into the bathroom, shivering because she was cold. She had exams today at school and was already late. She gazed into the mirror above the sink, frowning, wishing she was prettier. She had long black hair framing her long face, two stark blue eyes staring back at her over a crooked nose, a prominent forehead, and a pointy chin split by a vicious scar she had earned when she was nine and learning to ice skate. She reflected back upon that memory while touching at her scar and . . . blah, blah, bleh, blah.
Should I go on after I’m finished throwing up?
Or can we inject some action into the description while delivering just a touch of backstory?
Bree! Bree! Bree!
Rina startled awake to her blaring alarm.
Bree! Bree! Bree!
She crumpled the white linens over her head while burying her face deeper into the pillow’s warm softness, grumbling, “Not yet.”
Bree! Bree! Bree!
After ten seconds of testing patience, she flopped over and without looking swatted her arm out, slapping the alarm silent.
She sat up glaring at the evil perpetrator, its lambent red-numbered face a mockery to her fading dream of the beach and its warm sands scrunching between her wiggling toes as Tommy’s strong hands massaged coconut oil down her arms while kissing her neck. 9:15 already? She flipped the fluffy covers away, twisted and settled her bare feet to the cold floor. “Ugh.” She stood and shivered, cursing the winter chill frosting her window white and probably heaping snow all over her rusty Sedan. “Another glorious day.” She stumbled, yawning, into the bathroom.
There she splashed water onto her face after flipping back the tousled black mess of her long hair, leaned toward the mirror and checked the bags under her bleary blues telling her no amount of coffee would rid them before school.
And . . . she leaned closer, frowning, hands gripping porcelain . . . is that a zit?
Right smack in the middle of her prominent forehead, that puffy red third eye.
Might as well be a neon sign reading, ‘Look at me! Billboard for rent! Ask the ugly girl for details.’
She sighed, wilting, everything in her pleading to crawl back into bed and bury herself forever. Instead she poked the refection upon its crooked nose. “No can do. You’ve got exams today. And Tommy’ll be there. Maybe he’ll even talk to you today.”
She trailed her finger down the mirror — screeeech — to the scar on her mimicking doppelganger’s chin. No wishing that away . . .
At this point there’s no reason to explain Rina’s scar through blocky text of backstory reflection about how when she was nine she fell and busted her chin on the ice while all the cool kids laughed at her, even the cutie she was trying to impress by performing a pirouette she’d seen in a movie though never tried before. Mentioning the scar is enough. And leaving it unexplained will leave the reader wondering how Rina earned it . . . until two or five or however many chapters later in the story when perhaps a potential boyfriend asks how she got that scar and Rina explains it with a simple, “Ice skating accident. I was nine.”
Or how about this gem:
It was a dark and stormy night, with lightning flashing and thunder rolling. Ben was staring out his high apartment window, unable to see a thing. Suspicions had woke him from his tossing sleep, but the rain was coming down too thick now and he could not see anything of the parking lot below. He tried stealing glimpses during flashes of lightning in nervous worry. He thought he saw someone by his car, but he was not sure.
He watched out the window for minutes.
Lightning flashed again.
He thought he saw someone squatting next to his car and with something in their hand. Someone behind the front passenger fender still dented from the accident he had fled. The man he had struck must have followed him home somehow.
He waited, tensed and anxious.
More lightning flashed.
But the figure was gone.
Someone knocked on his door.
He turned around . . . blah, blah, bleh, blah.
Startled awake from his tossing sleep by the raging storm, Ben stood gazing out the high window of his apartment, his palms sweaty, the rain pouring down in thick white sheets. He counted the seconds by impatient mississippi’s between rumbles of thunder, anticipating that next flicker of lighting to lance the night and brighten the parking lot below.
“. . . three mississippi . . . four mississippi . . . five — ”
A flash of lightning split the dark.
There! Behind his green Volvo. Front passenger fender, dented from the accident he’d fled. The glimpse of motion. Someone crouching. Watching back at him. Shiny metal in hand.
It can’t be him.
He palmed the cold window, counting mississippi’s, his heart an elevated patter.
One mississippi . . . two mississippi . . .
“Come on, come on.”
Four mississippi . . . five mississippi . . .
“Where are you?”
Seven mississippi . . . eight —
He leaned so close to the window, squinting for a better glimpse, that he bumped his forehead and missed stealing another peek. Dammit.
A knock at the door startled him round, breath catching in his throat.
Our nervous Ben obviously fled an accident and now fears retaliation from the man he left for dead. But we don’t explain as much through a flood of backstory, instead we sprinkle in just enough details here and there between present action.
Because the best way to implement backstory is in brief spurts.
Because if the backstory was so important then it would be the main topic of your story. But it’s not. Which makes it ‘backstory’ and not ‘the story.’
When you meet a stranger do you immediately demand they tell you their entire life’s history while charting out their family tree?
Of course you don’t because that would be insane.
So don’t presume your reader possesses that same madness by forcing page after page of lengthy backstory upon them soon as they start your story.
Instead allow them to wonder at the who and the why as they read while unraveling the interesting mystery of your protagonist’s history. Mention the protagonist’s childhood scar or show their irrational fear of fire or whatever else sets them apart from the rest of the cast with the promise of explaining it later. People are curious creatures, and not knowing the whole of something drives a festering splinter of interest into our brains aching for that eventual revealing pull.
“. . .”