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Backstory and Prologues

Liz here.

One way many new writers try to get around the problem of backstory as Jen and Diana have outlined it is to throw it all in a prologue. They can't let go of the idea of having that backstory in there. As a result, the industry has pushed the other way. I've heard more than one person say that you should never write a prologue. But should you?

Prologues the wrong way.
If you're writing a prologue to inform the reader of what happened in the character's life before the story opened, that's the wrong reason to write one. If you write one to show what happened to them in the past, that is the wrong reason to write one. If you write one to introduce your readers to the story world and a host of characters, guess what? That's also the wrong reason.

Prologues the right way.
You can give backstory in a prologue, but you have to do it the correct way. A prologue should only be used if there is a large time jump between the prologue and the beginning of the story. The jump could be forward or backward. Also, a prologue should only be used only if there is no other way to give the reader that information. And they should only be used when the information is absolutely critical for the reader to have before the story starts. A prologue that shows an event that directly influences the beginning of the story can work well. A prologue that is merely for the purpose of dumping in backstory doesn't.

Don't be afraid to write a prologue and see if it works. Don't be afraid to cut it if it doesn't. When used properly, they can be great tools to give your reader vital information on your character.

Backstory: It’s not all bad when it’s done well.


Jen here:

I’m going to say something you probably haven’t heard in writing classes before. Backstory is absolutely necessary to your book. But if done badly, it can ruin your book and keep your readers from ever reading past the first few pages.

What is backstory?

Backstory is everything that has happened to your characters before they appear in your book. You need to know this for every POV character. In particular, you need to know what their deepest wound is, how it happened, what events have reinforced that worldview, and how they are functioning in the world to protect that wound. You’ll also want to know what their happiest moment has been, because there will be a drive for them to recreate that moment, or a complete sense of hopelessness that it can never be recreated.

The tipping point

Up until your character appears on page, she has been living her life protecting her wound in a certain way. But within a few pages of your book opening, something happens that makes it impossible for her to continue living life the way she has been. This is often known as the inciting incident. She’ll spend most of the story fighting against this change. After all, life had been going along okay so far. Not great, but good enough. But we the reader know that if she’ll just give in to the change, she’ll be able to heal her wound and possibly reach that happiest moment she longs for.

All of that comes from the backstory. Think about when you get to know a person. You don’t dump your whole life story on them. In fact, some of the most painful events of your life take a long time to come out (usually the second half of Act II). But when you are living fully in your character’s skin, that uneasiness they feel, that protectiveness of their wound will all come out in the words they say, the choices they make, the things they do.

How to do it right

From the beginning pages, there should be a sense that all is not as it should be. That your character’s way of handling things might be fraying around the edges. Or something new happens that her old way of handling things just doesn’t allow for. We as the reader don’t have to know why this is happening. Figuring that out will keep us turning the pages. But you absolutely must know the emotional basis for why she does what she does. Everything that occurs in the plot has to tie back to that emotional basis.

Additional resources

Jennifer's latest books~ Protective Custody: A cop burned by love falls for a key witness in a crime implicating the town’s rich and powerful.  Coming Home A strong- willed young woman must discover her brother’s killer before she’s the next victim. The prequelBe Mine, is also available. Can a simple thank you note turn into something more? Get the first chapter of Coming Home and Protective Custody at www.JenniferVanderklipp.com

What’s your backstory?

Diana here:

Everyone has one and so should your characters. That’s where backstory comes in; it’s the glue that holds your character frozen in a scary moment, or the reason your hero jumps out in traffic to save someone.

What backstory is—everything that came before the day your character appears on the page.

What it isn’t—everything that came before the day your character appears on the page.

I know, I wrote the same thing for both definitions, but hear me out.

You know that person you love or like, but has stories to tell? Not the person that does a great job and keeps you entertained. Nope, I’m thinking of the relative who starts at the beginning—the very start of a story. Like this: As soon as the alarm went off I knew I had to get out of bed. I had so many things to do (insert list of things with times of the day it needs to be done) and I was supposed to meet my friend at lunch. Then when I  opened the front door there was this dog. It was sitting on my porch. The story goes on for what seems like an eternity. Eventually, the end comes.

I was afraid to leave because I got bit by a dog once and I didn’t want that to happen again.

Wait! Bit by a dog? When did that happen? How bad was it? What kind of dog? Now, you’re interested. And that would have a place in the story, everything that happened before the person stepped on the porch is just filler.

When you add backstory, it has to make sense with the book you are writing. It has to answer a ‘why’ your character behaves in a certain way.

So, you know your why, but where do you insert it into the story?
       A.      In the first scene?
       B.       The entire first chapter?
       C.       Sprinkled throughout the book?

The answer is C. Let your character tell someone why they are afraid of the dog when they come across a dog or discuss getting a pet. You want the reader to experience the emotions of the why, the reasons for their anger, fear, stubbornness at the moment it makes sense. If you front load the backstory, the reader may get bored, because there isn’t a real connection with the character yet. If you tell the reader the details too soon, you also lose the impact of what that emotion feels like to the character. They may keep reading, but you’ve missed the chance to involve them deeper into your work.