Recently I read a book by an author I had not previously read. The back cover had hooked me with its summary of the story, so I anticipated a good read. I read four pages, flipped through to confirm that the writing was the same throughout, and returned the book to the library. What turned me off? The writer had missed the lesson on threading and weaving.
What is threading and weaving? It is the process of incorporating backstory into narrative - those story elements which are important to the plot but not central. The histories of the characters which make them who they are, past actions and events, information which is the readers need to know but not in entirety – all of these comprise backstory, and there are ways to incorporate them well. The use of dialogue, emotion, hints and innuendos, short passages of exposition, flashbacks, character musings and recollections are some ways to reveal backstory without bogging down the story.
The writer of the book I stopped reading had begun her story with a woman walking a dog up toward an old English inn. In the first three sentences we learned the reason why she was headed toward the inn. Then, however, the writer stopped the story to write for three pages about the history of the inn. By the time she came back to the story line, I had forgotten all about the woman and was confused when suddenly she was named with the action of her walking continuing. In the next section of the chapter, the writer introduced us to a secondary character, only to discontinue the plot in favor of several pages on how costuming had changed over the years. Less than ten pages into the book, and I had learned nothing about the characters and plot and was wondering exactly what the inn and costuming had to do with the story.
Rule number one of writing: You don’t want your readers to flounder! Especially not at the very beginning of the story. Readers need to be grounded in time and place, introduced to the main character or whomever is narrating, given something to form a connection with, and a sense of a story beginning. If action isn’t already happening, the reader should feel that something will happen soon.
Backstory should further the story. Be careful of explaining. Find another way to embed the information other than telling. Be aware of insider verses outsider perspective. An outside narrator may comment in ways characters inside the story may not. Be open to using other tricks, such as diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, etc… Be alert to lumping information; it should be incorporated in bits and pieces, not all at once. Be mindful of timing. When information is introduced it should fit the narrative circumstance. Finally, be willing to edit. When in doubt, cut out the backstory and see if it affects the story negatively at all.
Paula Castner is a wife, mother of three, and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, playwright, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.