Backstory: Anything that happens to a character before the actual story begins.
Info dump: When a writer dumps information about a character’s past into the beginning pages of a story.
Focused backstory: A method which breaks down a backstory into parts. These pieces are released throughout the story to maximize reader engagement. You can find the book on Focused Backstory (and the workbook) on Amazon.
I’ve written a lot about backstory, but in this post, I will provide the basics for how to start a story without giving too much detail about a character’s past too early.
Industry professionals have been saying for a while now it’s not a good idea to begin a story with an info dump. That’s why you don’t see many prologues anymore—although some authors write them well. For example, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs has a great prologue because it frames the entire story.
Why has this trend of waiting to tell/show a character’s backstory happened? There are several reasons, but the major one is because in this fast-paced world, readers want a story that starts in motion. If you still don’t believe me, consider these three reasons.
Reasons to start your story in the current time (when the story is happening)
1. If you start in the past and then skip ahead, readers have to read the beginning twice, and you risk losing their attention.
2. Readers may not be ready to care about a character’s past on page one. If they become interested in the character, you can tell them all about what happened later.
3. If you wait to give those juicy details about the past, readers might keep reading to find out what happened, and getting a reader to flip pages is gold for authors.
What kind of reader are you? Do you prefer to find out about the past first and then read the story? Or would you rather get going with the story and hear what happened later?
If you want to save a character’s backstory for later, first you must help the reader care (a lot) about the character. You must establish several things first.
How to begin your story so a reader will want to know backstory:
1. Make the character interesting by giving them a character quirk. What strange behavior do they have that stems from something that happened in the past? Do they refuse to listen to music while driving? Do they detest Ferris wheels? Eat a bell pepper every day? What do they do that makes you wonder about them?
2. Give the character a scar. This doesn’t have to be a literal scar, although those are interesting, but it could be something that left a gash in their psyche or personality.
3. Include a character who knows the main character well (and all about their painful past) and make them show empathy. They don’t have to gush over this person and make a big deal about their past, but they should give subtle hints that they know what happened and they still love this person and want the best for them. This character might play the role of the mentor in your story.
4. Give clues about what happened in the past but save some for later. The bottom line is this—use whatever you have to pique a reader’s interest. The slow release of backstory is a powerful tool for capturing a reader’s attention.
How to hook a reader with something other than backstory
You may have read a book that starts in the middle of a disaster and you felt like yawning. Sounds strange. I mean, you think to yourself, I should care that this girl is drowning, but I don’t. Am I a monster?
The answer to that question is no. You aren’t an ogre for not caring about a character if they’re found suffering on page one. Before a reader will worry about losing a character, they must feel something. Beginnings must include the following to help a reader care...
Ways to hook a reader (without dumping backstory)
1. Open with a situation that gets your reader asking questions. They shouldn’t be wondering what the heck is going on, but they should be curious. A brilliant way to do this is to show a character with an interesting quirk.
2. Include a current struggle which resonates with the end of the story.
3. Write a situation which shows the character’s big goals.
4. Include a building situation—what I mean by this is the opening scene should open a door to your book. You might include a dilemma related to an event that will happen later. For example, if your story is about a person who races cars, they can work on fixing the car at the start of the story.
5. Include a symbol that will span the length of your book. For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the Katniss plant is mentioned early in the story and is a symbol of how strong the character named Katniss is in the story.
6. Include plenty of tension as soon as possible. By tension, I don’t mean a character must be on the brink of death. Consider the book An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. The main character named Colin Singleton is taking a bath and we find out he was just dumped by a girl named Katherine (he only dates girls named Katherine, which is his character quirk). We find out early on he wants to have what Archimedes referred to as a Eureka moment. This scene has tension because we’re curious why he’s so upset and wonder what he will do next. Also, why does he only date girls named Katherine? How did he find so many girls with the same name to date? Why did he get dumped? Will Colin get over his obsession with the name Katherine?
To summarize, it’s important for writers to start their stories where the story really starts. Going back in time to dredge up a character’s painful past in the first pages won’t automatically make a reader care about your story. There are other ways to release information about a character’s past to keep a reader engaged.
Check back later (or check out my other blog posts) for more tips on writing fiction stories. I also recommend the book Hooked by Les Edgerton for more ideas on how to hook a reader.