What Brenda Novak Inadvertently Taught Me About Backstory

As a fledging writer, learning how to handle backstory has been a trial.  I know logically how it should be tackled.  After all, writing reflects life and we’ve all been introduced to people who in the first meeting launch into a monologue of their life story.  It’s tedious and I don’t last more than a few minutes before I tune out, plaster a fake smile on my face and nod absently all the while trying to figure out a way to disengage myself from said person.  The last thing I want is to create a similar sentiment in my reader.  Yet, I’ve done it.  Why?

I call it parent syndrome.  Even the most unassuming person can become immodest where their children are concerned – have I mentioned how well my two year old can recite her ‘A, B, Cs’?  Our creations, the characters in our stories, are like our offspring, thus we have a natural tendency to want to disclose everything about them instead of letting the nature of the character be revealed by the story.  It’s the reason so many first manuscripts are laden with way too much backstory. 

So, in order to refrain from ‘telling all’ in my own work, I needed to determine what role backstory serves in the storytelling process.  After much careful deliberation (mostly while drinking a bottle of wine while trying to get this article done) I came up with the following:

  1.             Backstory is a function of suspense
  2.             Backstory provides enough information about a character to make their actions and motivations believable and identifiable to the reader
  3.             What happens before the story begins can be the impetus for change that takes place within the story 

Okay.  That’s all well and good.  But the real question is not, ‘what is backstory’, but rather, ‘how are these three things accomplished without boring the reader out of their skull’?  In order to answer this question I go to the experts – published authors – to see how they handle it.  Unfortunately this need to critique others’ work in order to learn more about my own writing has sabotaged one of my greatest pleasures – reading.  Therefore, it is a rare treat to begin a new book only to become lost in the story, to forget about the mechanics and structure and to live the story and feel the emotions as I once did before I learned too much about the process. 

Brenda Novak’s, Trust Me, was just such a story.  There are so many things to recommend this first book in her Last Stand trilogy; the pacing is tight, the characters are darkly complex and yet still believable.  Novak expertly balances the romantic elements of the story with the intricacies of a highly suspenseful plot.  I could go on and on about what was handled well, but most pertinent to this article was Novak’s use of backstory.  I say ‘use’ because the backstory was woven in so skillfully, as a reader, I hardly noticed – which of course makes me believe it was written carefully and with deliberation. 

So, how does she do it?  In this particular story, Novak begins four years after the initial crime takes place.  We are plopped into the middle of things with numerous relationships already in progress.  How does she convey enough information from the past to inform the reader without bogging down the fast paced suspense thriller?  Apart from calling Brenda up and asking her, I decided to try to deconstruct for myself what made this story work.  Here’s what I found: 

1)  The first part of the story posed more questions than provided answers.  That need to learn the answers creates suspense – a key element of all stories – which is what keeps the reader turning the page and staying up until the wee hours of the morning unable to put a book down because they just have to know what happens next.

 In, Trust Me, the convicted felon is about to be released from prison early.  Now, Brenda could have started with the crime itself, but instead she begins the story with the arresting officers discussing the pending release and then breaking the news to the victim.  Although what happened four years ago is referenced in the first chapter; “’Member that guy we put away for attackin’ that little blond woman in the middle of the night?”  Brenda poses more questions than answers.  Did they convict the right person?  How was the woman attacked?  Who is the blond woman and what is she doing now?  Has this man killed other women?  Why is he being released?  How will it affect his victim?  What is the relationship between the detective and the victim?  Faced with so many questions, I didn’t want to stop after just the first chapter, or the second or the third…

What quickly became apparent was the higher the stakes, the bigger the secrets, the further I wanted to read and just when some questions were answered, more came to light. 

2)  Novak appears to subscribe to the ‘less is more’ theory.  One of the interesting aspects of Trust Me is that the story delves not only into the life of the victim, but into the lives of the family of the perpetrator of the crime, his wife in particular.  When we meet her she is in the midst of having an affair with her husband’s older brother while her husband is in prison.  While this act alone might give us a sense of what kind of person she is, with only two more sentences Novak develops her character so much more fully.  “Not that she felt good about what they were doing.  Her zealously religious aunt, who’d finished raising her when her own parents were killed in an automobile accident, was probably rolling over in her grave.”  This simple explanation implies so much about the character.  Guilt.  A strict upbringing.  Loss.  Suddenly this woman becomes more relatable and interesting. 

Novak could have waxed on and on about some horrid childhood experience that made her character feel insecure leading her to marry her current husband – the convict.  But, it isn’t necessary.  With that little bit of information the reader gets it and enough is said about her past.  Now I simply wanted to know what would happen to this character in the rest of the story.      

3)  Brenda avoids repetition.  If less is better, then for heaven’s sake, saying something more than once is criminal!  No one likes being brow beaten.  I know that when I come across passages that appear to be duplicated, I skim.  In Trust Me I read every single word.  Intuitively I knew that if I didn’t read everything, I might miss something key because it may only be mentioned once.  This is exactly what I want my readers to do; to read every single word I write.  I am reminded of something C.J. Carmichael said in a recent interview in Writer’s on Writing in the May, 2008 RWR.  She said, “Assume your reader is really, really smart.  Even as smart as you!”  This is so important to remember – to write it like you want to read it!

In summary, when it comes to backstory, I think it’s important to keep in mind the words of Nebula Award winner, Alexei Panshin, author of Rite of Passage, who said, “No tale tells all.”

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