Backstory: How the Masters Use It

Usually when backstory is effectively used, you don’t notice it.  It’s often “marbled” in with the front story, as James Scott Bell says.  Still, here are some examples of backstory that I have noticed (or remembered):

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
In this story, a girl goes on a hike as a way to deal with her mother’s death.  The backstory forms part of the designing principle, in that the front story of the hike is used to trigger memories of, and to illuminate and make peace with, the backstory of her childhood, her mother’s death, and the mess of her life that she’s made since then.

Stephen King’s It
In this story, a group of adults go back to their hometown to deal with a killer clown.  Again, backstory forms part of the designing principle in that a memory of each of the characters dealing with the clown as a kid is woven through the front story to add to the menacing quality of the killer clown–to raise the stakes.

Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis’s The Map to Everywhere
As a prologue, the story includes a two page application-like “orphan personal record” which tells the main character’s backstory: he was abandoned by a Ms. Notah Reelnaym, he has black hair and two eyes, and he’s got the magical power of being forgettable.

Harlan Coben
Mr. Coben is considered the master of the hook-and-twist, and he accomplishes this feat through backstory.  I’m new to Mr. Coben’s work, but of the stories I’ve read, especially his stand-alones, the front story is generally someone trying to figure out what happened to a missing-and-presumed-dead person.  Piece by piece the missing person’s backstory unfolds, raising the stakes and revealing juicy secrets and compelling reasons–that twist and deepen as they continue to unfold–why the “missing” person decided that maybe he should disappear for a while.  This too is a designing principle, one Mr. Coben uses often.

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour
I offer this up as an example of what not to do.  After a decent opening scene (or maybe it was a chapter), the next 70 pages or so is a rundown of the main character’s family history and backstory.  Totally boring and definitely not up to the standard of…

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire
The front story is a framing story (another designing principle), that of a reporter interviewing a vampire.  The vampire is tired of all the pain and suffering that goes along with being immortal, and he tells the reporter all about it–all about his backstory.

Well that’s it for me.  How about you?  What backstory have you noticed in what you’re reading?  Was it effective?  Not so much?  Tell us in the comments!


We’ll see how we can develop backstories to support the irreconcilable conflict we came up with for the one-liners we’ve got going.  See you then!

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