By Lu Anne Stewart
Recently, I finished drafting the first chapter of a new novel about an idealistic young woman in the post-Watergate 1970s, Meg Sullivan, who sets off for a small New England town to become a reporter.
Well, I thought I had finished it. Then a familiar question began to gnaw at me. I had woven in some key details about Meg’s childhood that inspired her to a career in journalism, but I didn’t linger long there. After a few pages of that backstory, my heroine hit the road to the quirky, brooding Rhode Island town where she will find a mystery to uncover.
Now I wondered if I’d moved too quickly. Would readers want to know more about Meg’s high school years, how she majored in journalism and worked on the college paper, how a certain professor shaped her thinking of reporting as a noble cause? How much of that backstory would be enough? And how much would be too much, making the reader’s mind begin to wander?
Backstory – information about the characters or events that happened prior to the main action of the story – is a hotly debated topic in writing workshops and essays by writers about writing. Some say backstory is almost never necessary; better to keep that plot moving ever forward! Others argue that backstory is essential to good character development, and that readers will take the time to read those background passages if they’re handled well.
Often, when I’m struggling with some aspect of writing craft, I look back at the works of my favorite writers for guidance and inspiration. This time, I decided to dissect the first chapters of three novels I love and admire to see exactly how much backstory these authors included – and how they did it.
The first thing I learned from this little research project is to be patient. No need to rush through the backstory, as long as the writing is vivid and engaging (no small task, that!), and the details help the reader understand the choices the main character will be making as the novel unfolds
In The Secret History, novelist Donna Tartt spends the first six pages detailing the early years of narrator Richard Papen’s life before he steps off the bus on the campus of Hampden College in Vermont, where he will meet his fate. In the backstory, we learn that as a teenager, he was a loner, alienated from his parents, not fitting in anywhere. That sets the stage for him to be drawn into a clique of students at Hampden that will lead down the path to murder.
Colum McCann, in the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, takes a leisurely 13 pages in the first chapter to detail his protagonist’s troubled childhood in Ireland before he arrives in New York to reconcile with his brother, Corrigan, and the main thread of plot actually begins. But oh, what a riveting 13 pages they are! McCann makes the childhood narrative shine with lovingly told memories of the character’s mother and heartbreaking bits of dialogue with his alcoholic brother. Along the way, he covers years in a single leap when there’s no need to dawdle, as in this backstory-rich passage:
I had dropped out of university and spent the best part of my late twenties in a basement flat on Raglan Road, catching the tail end of the hippie years. Like most things Irish, I was a couple of years too late. I drifted into my thirties, found a desk job, but still wanted the old reckless life.
Analyzing how some of these authors handle backstory reminds me to avoid the dreaded “info dump” –pages of factual background that feel like a detour from the main story. In Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, the backstory on Clarissa’s troubled marriage to an egotistical artist, Iggy, is sprinkled elegantly through a long passage in chapter one as she observes the snakes, insects and other wildlife in her Florida garden. Re-reading this passage, I marvel again at how she weaves in this background but never goes more than a sentence or two before grounding the reader in the current scene of Clarissa in her garden:
Batting again at that annoying fly, Clarissa thought, Iggy’s art is his kingdom but I am not his queen. He had many queens, models all: She was very clear about that issue. And also this one: He had not touched her – not so much as a peck on the cheek, an arm around her waist, a caress amid dreams on a warm night – in nearly two years. His amorous intentions had not stopped like a switch being flipped. They had slowly – over a period of…Clarissa wasn’t sure, maybe four or five years – evaporated. Maybe, she thought as she scratched at a raw mosquito bite on her elbow, this is normal; maybe all men lose interest in their wives…
Awed and inspired by these backstory masters, I’m headed back to the computer to fill in the missing pieces of Meg. I have an idea about which details are essential to understanding her passion for uncovering the truth about things. Let’s hope I linger on the right ones, and keep the reader interested enough to follow her journey to that Rhode Island town.