On Monday and Wednesday I posted on 'backstory' from Susan Warren's and Rachel Hauck's writing blog, My Book Therapy. You can read that here and here.
So you've whet your reader's appetite with just the right amount of bread crumbs to lead them into the story. They knew, basically, that there is a dark secret in your hero's past, a good reason why he needs to fight the dragon, or climb the mountain. So...when do you reveal the secret?
I love HG TV....it's sort of an addiction, I agree, but HG TV tells me that I CAN fix up my house, I CAN be an interior designer. (regardless of the truth!) I especailly love the show where they go into a really ugly room, and fix it up based on the stuff they have around the house (like Design ReMix). However, every HG TV show is the same...they present the problem, they show how they'll fix it, do the work, then have the GREAT REVEAL. (I admit, sometimes I fast forward to the end, to see if I like the reveal, and thus, should watch the show. I know it's a little like reading the ending of a book before hand. Don't shoot me!) In theory, however, this is a bit how backstory should play out in a book.
Show us the problem. Don't tell us WHY he/she has that problem, just show us the effects of the problem, or the way he deals with the problem. Ie, in my book Flee the Night, the book opens with Lacey on a train, sitting next to her daughter. She sees a man get on – one she recognizes as an assasin. She knows he's after her (but doesn't tell us why). We also know she's protecting a briefcase (don't know why). And, we know that she hasn't seen her daughter for a while. (Also, don't know why). All these problems are hinted at, but not solved.
Then, bring us through the story, showing us how they'll “fix” the problems. All the while, they'll be giving us sufficient motivation as to why this action is the right course, just like HG TV “fixes” their decorating problems. Need a lamp? Oh, we'll just use this old tin garbage can. Need to rescue you're daughter from a kidnapper? Just call up your oldest friend, a Green Beret. And, when he hangs up on you (presenting another backstory hint), then break out of your hospital room handcuffs and go find her yourself. All these things will reveal who she is, and her backstory.
It's like this – we are today the SUM of our backstory. Everything we do, think, or feel is because of the things that have happened to us, the choices we've made. In HG-TV speak, backstory is the stuff we have in our rooms for decorators to work with and create something out of.
Okay, now that you've dropped all your breadcrumbs, when you've assembled the pieces of the story, when, if the reader doesn't find out about the backstory, someone is going to get hurt, THEN you do the big reveal, the HERE IS WHY I let my life come to this. This is a little where my HG TV metaphor breaks down, because in HG-TV land, the Big Reveal is something new and pretty. In the backstory BIG REVEAL, the character sits down with the other characters and the reader and says, okay, here's my secret. Sometimes it's in dialogue. Sometimes it's the revelation of a secret through another source. But about ½ way to ¾ through the book, the truth needs to come out. Why? Usually because there is a final challenge before the hero, something SO great it seems unsurmountable, and maybe not worth fighting for UNLESS we know the backstory. Why is it worth it (or maybe not worth it, depending on the story...a character might have a GREAT thing looming before them, but lack the courage to reach for it, thanks to the backstory) to fight this battle? What is the great motivation behind your actions?
Remember the Patriot, that part in the story where Mel tells Gabriel about his past, during the French/Indian war? It suddenly gives resonance to all the pieces of the story we've seen – his battle ax, the way he confronts the British soldiers after they kill his son, the “type” of men he recruits, even his battle tactics. And, we also understand the opening line: I've long feared that the sins of my past would revisit me, and the price would be greater than I can bear (or something like that).
You'll know when to do the reveal. If you hold back, the truth will press upon you until you MUST tell it. And, if you've set up the problem, and used elements from the backstory room to face them, then your reveal will be something that has the reader putting down the book, just for a moment, to gasp, wipe a couple tears, and dive in with the hero to the end.
When I teach, I often have a lot of questions about backstory - when to put it into a prologue (uh, NEVER!), and how to structure the reveal. If YOU have questions about your backstory, I'll be setting up a VOICES forum for backstory questions today. Stop by over the weekend, and Rachel and I (and your other voices) will try and help.
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