Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told

Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told

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 largely 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.

Use Backstory to Transform Your Real Story

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.

Good Backstory Is All About Motivation Triggers

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).

Enders Shadow Orson Scott Card Patriot Mel Gibson Scapegoat Daphne Du Maurier

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.

Time Travelers Wife Audrey Niffenegger After Dunkirk Milena McGraw

How to Create Amazing Backstory

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.

Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Yep, me too. My characters’ backstories are inevitably linked closely to their trials in the story itself.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for reminding me! I have good backstories for two of my characters, but an early remark of yours reminded me that I did indeed slap a scar on my herione and I still havent decided how she got it. She’s the one that’s giving me the most trouble trying to pin down. But as I work on her I use the background she does have to discover and build up who she is. Wish me luck.
    Nadine Liamson

  3. In the imagining stage of creating a story (long before I get to the nitty-gritty of writing them down), it’s a character’s backstory that inevitably brings the character to life for me. Once I start realizing where this person came from, I start figuring out where he’s going to go.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to nitpick, but did Barratt “except” or “accept” the swapping of roles?

  5. Right you are! Thanks for catching that.

  6. Another helpful advice. For me, putting the backstory in its right place is almost always done in the 1st edit. For some reason, I know what the backstory is, but I don’t know how to write it properly in the first draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always tempting to reveal the backstory too soon. But sometimes we just need to get it out of our systems in the first draft, so we know what needs to be said and what doesn’t.

  7. thomas h cullen says:

    Croyan never had a backstory..

  8. Nikolaus Dubinin says:

    Such a straightforward light! Thank you for this article.

    Backstory, I adore. It is the shape of the arrow, just before it is fired. It is such an important anchor for character role. It explains and defines, motivates. The best backstory, in one humble opinion, is that which seems like something almost whimsical, (with the dash of a stolen starlight memory; or threnody of moonlight tragedy), when we are meeting the character. Yet, the reader is left to sum two and two, to complete the spell’s conjuring, as the journey takes shape and forward proceeds.

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