This week: The Importance of BackstoryEdited by: Lonewolf
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Backstory is defined as everything that shapes your characters up to the point your story begins. It is more than where they went to school or their relationships with their parents. It defines the moral, intellectual and emotional landscape of your characters and shapes their morality, spirituality and entire way of life. Character backstory shapes their current actions rather than control them. It helps us understand why they behave in a particular way.
Backstory, of course, is basically self-explanatory. It’s the story that goes in back of the real story. The story before the story. The unseen history that explains all of your characters’ origins, motives, decisions and behavior. As such, it’s understandably vital to the progression and consistency of your tale. Particularly during this modern trend of beginning stories in the middle of things, a deep and full-bodied backstory is every bit as important as the story itself.
When I sit down to write a new story, I generally have a basic idea of the major plot points. I know who my heroes are, I know what they’re after, I know some of things they’re going to have to accomplish to reach their goals. But my concept of who they are and what, in their individual pasts, has shaped them into the people I need them to be, is often foggy at best.
Before I can tell others my story, I have to tell myself its prequel. I begin writing my characters’ backstories with no other intention than that of figuring out where my story proper needs to go. But the exhilarating part of all this is that usually the backstory takes on a life of its own and transforms my previously shallow concept of my story into something much bigger.
Here are ten things every mystery writer should know about backstory.
1. It’s essential to determine how much backstory is necessary for the story. Do not over explain past events. Choose only those events needed to explain a character’s emotions and actions.
2. It’s absolutely critical to decide where and how to insert background information into a fast moving mystery novel without stalling the story.
3. Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know as much backstory as the writer does so keep backstory to a minimum.
4. You must make the past (backstory) important to the reader by making it the vehicle that ties together the mysterious threads of the current action.
5. Weave the backstory into the plot in small dribbles revealing more bits of information as the story progresses. This keeps the reader wanting more.
6. Deliver backstory in a scene where it fits naturally into the story. Tie the information to some type of action that’s happening.
7. Try not to present backstory in the first chapter. You need to open your novel with action that propels the story forward. By its very nature, backstory is not action and it does not move the story forward.
8. Backstory should provide information that engages your readers’ imagination and forces him/her to ask more questions.
9. Flashback is a useful vehicle for presenting backstory but something in the scene must trigger it.
10. Keep backstory short and to the point. Never wax poetically in the past while the story halts and the reader dozes off.
Excerpt of: Dead is Dead
Lieutenant Woods headed in his Crown Victoria to his third possible crimescene. Detective McGinty sat next to him, pale, and held a brown paper bag in front of him.
"Thanks for not throwing up all over the crimescene." Lieutenant Woods said.
"I'm sorry. I don't know how you do it."
Lieutenant Woods thought about the grotesque sight at Constance Billings's apartment. Her daughters were butchered, and parts of the woman were on the wall.
"It's just all that blood…" the distraught detective glanced out the window, probably trying to focus on the dramatic changes in housing. Constance lived in a poorer section of town, known as Brownsville, now they were called to Mrs. Kramer's house. She gave the young detective piano lessons when he was ten-years-old.
The gruesome images flashed before Lieutenant Woods. He tried to piece together the events. CSI Baxter remained at the crime scene but promised to go check the old woman's house when he completed his work. The arrogant fool thinks he knows everything. Damn, how can I tell him what I saw without revealing my ability?
~ ~ ~
Excerpt of: Graveyard Girl
A single figure sat at one of the tombstones. Her appearance was ghostly. She was shrouded in a black cloak, and except for the black hair, there seemed to be no colour in her. No warmth that would suggest life. Her skin was pale…almost translucent. Her dark, vacant eyes stared straight out in front of her, and there was no expression on her stony face. Then, unexpectedly, she threw her head back, and another thin, feeble wail, pierced the night.
Suddenly a loud train roared in the background just behind the cemetery. The screeching of metal on metal seemed to have intruded on her grief filled trance. She suddenly shot to her feet and fled, cape flowing, long black hair streaming out behind her as the hood slipped off her head. Her feet pounded the grass and dead leaves. She was terrified.
~ ~ ~
Excerpt of: The 6th Commandment
Acquiring a gun is no simple task. Is it a necessary purchase? Communities, like the Pico Union in L.A., where the legal system isn't enforced, the Code of the Street emerges as law. Self protection becomes essential; for the Code of the Street offers two choices: live by it or die by it.
Brenna applied the brake as she slowly made the turn into the alley. There was no sun shine, just smog and heat...humid heat. Through the thick, mid-morning smog, she could see a vague shape, resembling that of a large truck. The alley, cluttered with garbage, divided two rows of buildings. Once white, the edifices stood tall, though, heavily marred by the graffiti insignias belonging to rival gangs: the Eighteen Street and the Mara Salvatrucha, each staking their claim to the Pico Union Community. The gang markings brought back memories of her childhood days when she and her family lived in the Community as well as its dangers that consumed it.
She stopped her car behind the truck and waited for a few minutes. Carefully scrutinizing her surroundings, she cautiously opened the door. Stepping out, she gagged; her nostrils immediately filled with the stench of rotten food and body waste. The stench of the vile air thickened as it merged with the smell of burnt flesh and hair. Covering her nose and mouth with both hands, she looked toward the back of her car. Her eyes rested on the remains of a dead, charred cat that had been tossed to the side of the alley.
~ ~ ~
Excerpt of: The Right of Blood
Blood poured profusely from a wound in her side. Reaching a trembling hand to her neck, Tristan felt desperately for a pulse. Though Rachel Evans’ skin was ashen, it was still warm to the touch, a fleeting glimmer of hope blossomed in Tristan, to die a breath later…there was no pulse. Rachel Evans was already dead.
His stomach crashed through his shoes. He’d been too late. If he’d been home only two minutes earlier, he might have saved her. Still, before the full weight of this had time to do more than shatter his world, a thump and a shout sounded above him. A moment later, a second thump followed the first, then the sound of breaking glass. The culprit was still in the house.
Fighting back rising terror, and anger, Tristan grudgingly left his mother’s corpse. The only thing he could do for the dead was seek justice. To be honest with himself, he knew that deep down he wanted revenge, total and horrific retribution; but, he also knew that if he crossed that line, he’d be as much a monster as whoever had done these deeds. It would not be a fitting legacy for his late mother. No, justice would be the path. If he worked quickly, he’d capture the culprit and hand the person over to the Guardians.
~ ~ ~
Excerpt of: Lost Life
A thin, elderly man, his gray hair cut in a do-it-yourself ragged style, shuffled along an Oklahoma City street. His well-worn clothes fit loosely on his thin frame. “Bum, worthless bum,” the storekeeper mumbled as he watched the elderly man stumble over a lump in the concrete. “Wish we could get rid of all those homeless bums.” As soon as the man passed by the small grocery, the owner turned away from the window to smile at a customer.
“The Gentleman,” as the community of homeless people titled him when he first appeared in their midst, always took advantage of the laundry and showers in the shelter that allowed each homeless person to stay two days and nights a week. For some reason, he felt compelled to stay as clean as he could. He, also, had felt an urgency not to eat dinner at the shelter the night before and had experienced a need to start walking, but he tried to sleep first. He tried, but his head kept telling him to leave. He stared at the cracks in the ceiling till dawn.
Now his eyes stared straight ahead as he stumbled forward. His thoughts didn’t seem as chaotic today. Have to get home. Have to, circled around and around in his mind unmolested by anything else.
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