Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
On a fun note – having been born on a Friday the 13th, Winnie has always considered 13 her lucky number. This belief was recently reinforced when her 13th book, Handpicked Husband, won a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award in – what else – 2013.
What came before your story opens?
I think most writers have an intuitive grasp of what backstory is – simply put, it’s everything that happened before your story opens that has a potential impact on your characters or on their journey.
To truly understand your characters and the growth arc they must experience, to understand them in such a way as to make them real to your reader, they first must be real to you. And in order to accomplish this, you need to explore those people and events from their pasts that molded them into the persons they are in the ‘today’ of your story.
Equally as important as knowing your characters’ backstory, however, is knowing WHEN to reveal it to your reader. Many novice writers make the mistake of wanting to explain everything up front. But if you do this, you eliminate much of the page-turning quality that drives your reader further into the story.
There are two main reasons to hold back certain key bits of information about your characters’ past in the early part of your story:
- To answer a story question you’ve been building up to
- To introduce an unexpected twist and send your story in a whole new direction
In the first instance, your reader will feel more involved in your story if you start with subtle hints that both intrigue and raise questions in her mind. This allows her to puzzle things out, layer by layer, so that when the final pieces fall into place, she feels satisfaction in having deduced all or part of the picture.
In the second scenario, the reveal is something they (hopefully) didn’t see coming. But once disclosed, it sheds new light on the character and her actions. It makes the reader sit up and say
‘Cool! So that’s why she did thus-and-so when confronted with situation xyz.’ (Think of the actions of Bruce Willis’ wife in The Sixth Sense and how your perception of her changed once you learned the surprise ending.)
or ‘Wow! I wonder what he’s going to do now that he knows the BIG SECRET.’ (Think of the classic Darth Vadar line “Luke, I’m your father.”)
In all of these cases, the revelation of certain pieces of the character’s backstory was withheld until the moment when it would have the most impact.
Once you’ve decided what you want to reveal and when to work it in, there are a number of techniques for doing so effectively. But that’s a topic for another time.
- Provide background information only when it is absolutely necessary to further the action and development of your story’s current In other words, it should answer a crying need for the reader to know this information at this point in time.
- Include only the bits and pieces necessary to keep the reader with you. You want to trickle the information in rather than deluge the reader.
Keeping these two points in mind will help you maintain the fast pace and page turning quality in your story that keeps your readers coming back for more.