When Ernest Hemingway spoke about the dignity of an iceberg being “due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” he was speaking about the importance of the part of the story that isn’t told. Those seven-eighths underwater are the ballast for the tiny bit that juts up to glisten in the sun. And, more often than not, those seven-eighths are almost entirely composed of one of the most important—and yet sometimes overlooked—facets of any tale. Backstory.
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 informs all of your characters’ decisions and actions. As such, it’s understandably vital to the progression and consistency of your tale. Particularly during this modern trend of beginning stories in medias res (in the middle of things), a deep and full-bodied backstory is every whit 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. The little chunk of ice floating around in my imagination morphs into a looming iceberg.
Within backstory, we find the key motivating factors in our characters’ lives: the inability to measure up to his younger brother, which fuels Peter Wiggin’s anger and ambition (the Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card); the long-harbored guilt for brutal war crimes, which impels Benjamin Martin to avoid war (the movie The Patriot); the long years of loneliness which influenced John Barratt to accept the compulsory swapping of roles with his French lookalike (The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier). And, in some lucky instances, the backstory takes over completely, as in Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.
The key to crafting stories with many layers—stories with depth and ballast—is to never ignore the blank spaces in your characters. Don’t let them get away with telling you only what they must to make the story work. Search out the shadows in their pasts, discover their parents, their childhood friends, their catalysts. Don’t just accept that your main character is a cop; find out why he became a cop. Don’t just slap a scar on your heroine; discover where the scar came from.
At the same time, don’t forget that there’s a time and a place where backstory belongs—and a time and place where it doesn’t. Sometimes the only person who needs to know the backstory is the author. Vital as this information may be, don’t inflict it unnecessarily on your readers. The best backstories are those that influence without obstructing. Just like an iceberg, stories work best when the greater part of them remains submerged.
Related Posts: The Benefits of Outlining
Subtext: The Art of Iceberging
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Story by K.M. Weiland