The Backstory Paradox

It is a truth universally acknowledged that your protagonists did not leap onto the page like newborns, with no past.

It’s just as true that explaining their history to your reader before the story starts is a literary solecism.

So what’s the answer?

First, understand what’s backstory and what’s story present

This isn’t quite as obvious as it sounds. What constitutes backstory in your novel is related to structure, to your protagonists’ journeys, and to how deeply your romance is rooted in history.

Go back and look at the boundaries you put in place in the previous module. Then take a look at your protagonists’ different qualities and attributes. In order to have a point zero before which everything else is backstory, you have to know where the story you’re telling actually begins. To be fancy, this is the terminus ante quem.

Then, sort out those events that occurred before your story begins into separate buckets:

  • Historical—events that have a direct influence on your characters or their world as it is during the time of your story.
  • Personal—the backgrounds of each of your protagonists, the episodes that molded them into what they are when they first step onto the page at the beginning of your story present.
  • Cultural—aspects of the world your characters inhabit that are in place, but that might need some explanation or introduction to a present-day reader.

(The worksheet for this lesson provides room to do this.) These will all be things you might be tempted to tell your reader about before the action gets going. Resist that temptation. Instead, I’ll give you four guidelines for introducing backstory:

  1. Trust your reader. They won’t know everything you know, but if they’re picking up a historical romance, assume they have some familiarity with the period. Also assume they are intelligent enough to deduce a lot from context clues.
  2. Timing is everything. There’s no question that front-loading backstory is a sure way to alienate your reader and get your story off to a slow start. On the other hand, burying an essential bit of backstory that instigates a crisis is maddening in the extreme. It’s all about what your protagonist knows, what your reader knows, and when each of them needs to know it.
  3. Make sure it’s essential and relevant. Just because you know something about the history or what happened to your characters in the past doesn’t mean your reader has to know it in order to enter into the story. For instance, your protagonist being a strong swimmer means nothing unless that skill matters to the rest of your story.
  4. Don’t be vague and general. Specificity is the key to backstory. Generalizations are not useful.

Backstory has to accomplish one of two things

  • Deepen the character
  • Advance the story

In order to figure out what backstory is actually essential and relevant, you have to know what it will add to your story. Those additions must relate to deepening your characters, helping us understand who they are and where they are on their character arc, or advancing the story.

Once you know the what, the next step is the how. This is arguably the most difficult part of incorporating backstory. While the impulse is often to tell, there are ways to show backstory, and to combine showing and telling in a way that makes incorporating backstory seamless to the reader.

Here are the three basic techniques that can be used individually or in combination, often leading one to the other.

First technique: context clues

This is the subtlest, most delicate way to acquaint your reader with important details of backstory without resorting to narrating or info dumping. Below is the beginning of The Clockmaker’s Daughter, a multi-timeline novel with romantic elements leading to a complex, embedded romance. (Although there’s an important prologue before this.) And it’s one of my favorites, so even if it doesn’t entirely fit the definition, I’m using it here (bold face is mine).

“It was Elodie Winslow’s favorite time of day. Summer in London, and at a certain point in the very late afternoon the sun seemed to hesitate in its passage across the sky and light spilled through the small glass tiles in the pavement directly onto her desk. Best of all, with Margot and Mr. Pendleton gone home for the day, the moment was Elodie’s alone.

The basement of Stratton, Cadwell & Co., in its building on the Strand, was not an especially romantic place, not like the muniment room at New College where Elodie had taken holiday work the year she completed her master’s. It was not warm, ever, and even during a heat wave like this one Elodie needed to wear a cardigan at her desk. But every so often, when the stars aligned, the office, with its smell of dust and age and the seeping Thames, was almost charming.

In the narrow kitchenette behind the wall of filing cabinets, Elodie poured steaming water into the mug and flipped the timer. Margot thought this precision extreme, but Elodie preferred her tea when it had steeped for three and a half minutes exactly.

As she waited, grains of sand slipping through the glass, Elodie’s thoughts returned to Pippa’s message. She had picked it up on her phone, when she’d ducked across the road to buy a sandwich for lunch: an invitation to a fashion launch party that sounded as tempting to Elodie as a stint in the doctor’s waiting room. Thankfully, she already had plans—a visit to her father in Hampstead to collect the recordings he’d put aside for her—and was spared the task of inventing a reason to say no.

— The Clockmaker’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Morton

We learn so much about Elodie as a character here through a few well-chosen, specific details. She works in a dusty office (details of “dust and age and the seeping Thames”) that has something to do with her master’s degree, which involved archives (the reference to “muniment room”). She’s meticulous and sensitive to her surroundings. (The effect of the light, steeping her tea for a specific amount of time.) She’s a loner. (“Best of all,” her coworkers have left, and she doesn’t want to go to a particular event.) And her father lives in Hampstead and has recordings to give to her.

In addition to giving us a clear glimpse into her character and backstory, this use of strategic bits in context raises questions in the reader’s mind that keep us reading: Is her mother alive? What are the recordings, and why did her father put them aside for her? Why would she invent a reason to say no to her close friend?

In other words, these bits of contextual backstory both deepen her character and nudge us into the story. And it’s not through general pieces of information, or directly telling us anything, but just sketching in precise, relevant details.

Another example, from the beginning of Listen to the Wind, the first book in my medieval trilogy, The Orphans of Tolosa, uses contextual detail to reveal time, place, and character:

Azalaïs watched a fat, brown spider climb over a stone right in front of her nose and carry on toward a leaf just beyond it. She hated spiders, but she forced herself not to move, not even to flinch. It would ruin everything. She had been lying flat on her stomach with one ear pressed to the ground, in the spot Azemar told her about, for what seemed a very long time.

“Half a league west,” he said, “Just by the side of the road that leads from Pamiers to Foix.” She went over and over his instructions: “You have to be patient. Let the shadows grow for at least a thumb’s length before you give up.” Azemar, who was no better than she was except that he was a boy, told her he could lie still enough to hear a worm crawling just in that place, and she was determined to prove that she could too.

So far, she hadn’t heard anything other than the everyday sounds of the forest—a handful of crows squabbling over some carrion just beyond the crest of the hill, the chucking of squirrels chasing each other up and down a tree. She wished they would all be quiet.

Then at long last her ear picked up something, a rumbling, deep in the earth. At first it was very faint. But as she listened, it grew.

And grew, and grew. That’s definitely not a worm, she thought. But it certainly wasn’t a normal forest sound either, and it was coming toward her fast from the northwest.

Azalais flattened herself even harder against the forest floor and waited for whatever it was to pass by. When the noise was so loud she thought that at any moment it would crush her, she peeked up through her lashes.

Three men on horseback trotted straight toward her. A knight in chain mail with a white cross on his surcotte led them. The second rider wore a leather tunic and had a longbow across his back, and the third wore only a short, green tunic and soft shoes with pointed toes. The knight’s shield flapped in time with the horse’s gait. All three of the men stared straight ahead.

— Listen to the Wind: The Orphans of Tolosa Book I by Susanne Dunlap

We start out with something very small and close, a fat, brown spider, which is somehow right in front of the POV character’s nose. She’s in the spot someone told her about, so it must be someone she trusts. This spot is “half a league” away from somewhere, which places us in a time when leagues were the common measure of distance, and then we know we’re in France because of the reference to Pamiers and Foix. Measurement, again, gives us a clue about not just the time, but the ages of the characters. A thumb’s length: not two inches. And then we know that the POV character is a girl and the other is a boy, not simply by being told, but by having it through her eyes, that he’s no better than she was except in being a boy. We are never directly told what events led her to this place and time.

You get the idea. And the questions raised are why are two children in the forest? Where did they come from, who are they? What is the significance of the lance (group of three knights) riding along? What was she trying to prove by listening to the ground? Ideally, this gives the reader a sense of the characters and makes them eager to keep reading.

Second technique: Memory

This is simply giving a character in your story present a memory of something in their past—without taking the reader out of the main story.

The key to effective memories is to get into them without being awkward and blockish. Here are three examples of memories from historical romances.

This first example is from Kate Bateman’s Second Duke’s the Charm:

“Daisy let out a derisive snort. “How do you know what he looks like?”

“Because I met him,” Ellie said triumphantly. “Two years ago.”

“When?” Tess demanded.

“Do you remember Lady Petworth’s ball? The one to celebrate Bonaparte’s first exile?”

Tess wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t go. That was the week before my wedding. Father was keeping me under house arrest.”

“Oh, hell, I’d forgotten about that. I hope he’s rotting in his grave,” Ellie muttered vehemently. Daisy nodded in agreement, and Tess felt a flash of gratitude for their unwavering support.

“Well, anyway,” Ellie continued, “he was there. Half the girls fell in love with him, even with absolutely no encouragement.”

“Probably because he gave them no encouragement,” Daisy drawled. “There’s something so appealing about a challenge.”

Second Duke’s the Charm by Kate Bateman

This fun, sparkly novel by Kate Bateman depends on our knowing about past events to make the present more twisty. In this scene, she uses snappy dialogue to introduce a memory, the ball where one of the characters met a handsome duke. While the details are sketchy, we get enough to indicate that he must be handsome, not by being told that exactly, but through the fact that half the girls fell in love with him.

Note that we stay in the present, but words such as “do you remember?” lead us into the memory in a way that doesn’t feel ham-fisted. The use of past perfect (had) gives us the boundaries of the memory.

Another historical romance, Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke, neatly provides backstory in a passage that combines context and memory:

“You are not going to Oxford,” he bellowed, and slapped his hand down on the desk.

Bringing Down the Duke (A League of Extraordinary Women Book 1) by Evie Dunmore

Here, Evie Dunmore uses the prompt of a piece of furniture to lead us into backstory about the protagonist’s life before this point (having given us a bit of contextual backstory through the mention of her father’s will). And the furniture is relevant, being a desk that bore the aspect of authority, with four carved lion paws as legs. Without the detail, the memory is less palpable.

There’s also nothing wrong with referring to a time period, if it makes sense: “After five long years… the news that Oxford University had opened a women’s college…”

In the historical timeline of Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, we’re given a vivid image of the protagonist’s immediate past through the use of memory:

“What news of London?” she asked. “Is it true the king would remove to Hampton Court, for fear of the sickness?”

“I know not what the king intends,” I said honestly, “but the common people talk much of leaving.”

Under Rachel’s prodding, I told them of the panic that had gripped the City, the ceaseless whispers and muttered prayers, and of the houses I had seen shut up in Westminster, with the red warning crosses painted on the doors and the words “Lord have mercy upon us” scrawled beneath the crosses by some frantic, hopeful hand.

My uncle shrugged. “London is a godless, sinful place,” he said, “and the hand of the Lord is seeking vengeance. Those who are righteous have nothing to fear.”

I lifted my chin, my eyes stinging. “My mother did not sin,” I told him, “and she is dead.”

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

To introduce the memory, give it a reason for being shared in context, Kearsley has another character ask a question that leads to it. The memory of London in a panic during the plague is sketched in with specifics: red crosses on the doors, writing underneath them. And we also find out that her mother died of the plague.

Another important job of this memory is to reveal something about her uncle’s character as a strict moralist.

Third technique: flashback

Flashbacks take the reader out of the present time of the story and place them in a scene that occurred at an earlier time. Because this interrupts the narrative, flashbacks need to be used like strong spices and not be too long, or you risk confusing your reader as to where the story actually is.

Flashbacks also have to be vital to the story at the point where they’re introduced. They have to reveal something essential to the reader, either about the plot or the character. This technique is probably less used in romance than in other genres, but it can be very effective.

If you find yourself relying on a lot of flashbacks, it’s possible that you either need to start your story earlier, or are in fact writing a dual-timeline narrative.

There was no way that he could have known. In all the time I’d worked for him I’d never told him anything about what I could do, and even if I’d told him, he’d have rubbished the idea. “Woo-woo stuff,” he would have called it, as he’d done the day our previous receptionist had told us she was visiting a psychic.

I had chosen not to use it now for years. Two years, to be exact.

— The Firebird (Slains Book 2) by Susanna Kearsley

As you’ve probably guessed, this gift of the protagonist is what moves the reader from present to past timeline. The red type is the actual flashback, a short scene she remembers. The purple type is where it becomes a memory rather than a flashback. Note that the flashback is in scene, the memory is summary.

I offer this as an example of how a flashback could be used in a single timeline when there are more than one. If you’re writing a single-timeline novel and you find yourself overloading it with flashbacks, you might think about whether your story wouldn’t better be told over two timelines.

Getting in and out of a flashback seamlessly is important. The excerpt below, from Evie Woods’s The Lost Bookshop, demonstrates using a physical prompt (a book) and a memory to lead into a flashback scene, and then return to a memory to get us out of it again.

A book is never what it seems. I think my father had hoped my love of books would instil an interest in my schooling, but if anything, it only fuelled my loathing for the classroom. I tended to live in my imagination and so, every evening, I would race home from school and ask him to read to me. He was a civil servant, an honest man with a passion for learning. He always said that books were more than words on paper; they were portals to other places, other lives. I fell in love with books and the vast worlds they held inside, and I owed it all to my father.

When he finally succumbed to the Spanish Flu in 1918, I stayed up all night by his side, holding his cold hand, reading his favourite story. The Personal History of David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. In some silly way, I thought that the words would bring him back.”

The Lost Bookshop, by Evie Woods

The worksheet for this lesson provides a template for you to identify the important backstory, what your reader really needs to know about your protagonists’ pasts, and start thinking about some ways to incorporate that information in your story so that the reader is hardly aware that you’re doing it.