Monday, July 29, 2013

Character and Series Backstory and the Traditional Mystery

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Backstory can be a real problem for writers…if readers find it boring. Many readers won’t put their finger on exactly what it was that made the story boring, but they’ll put it aside.  No one really enjoys an expository  dump of information—they just want an engaging story.
In a mystery, this might seem tricky.  A suspect’s backstory is frequently what comprises their motive for murder.  How a suspect’s past intersects with the victim’s past is important.
For mysteries, though, you’ve got a very helpful element that allows you to work the backstory in fairly seamlessly: the interview process.  Your sleuth or detective is trying to find out information to determine a suspect’s motive. 
My suspect backstory is frequently revealed through:
The sleuth’s conversation with another character about the suspect.
The sleuth’s interview with the suspect himself.
Backstory with a traditional mystery should, in general, tie into the mystery itself.  Unless you’re trying to build in red herrings: for example, you could mention Tim is a teetotaler now because of some terrible drunken episode in his past.  Maybe that doesn’t tie into the current mystery…but it could make readers wonder if Tim and the victim had a run-in of some kind during that period in Tim’s life.  It provides the reader with a red herring.
Exceptions—the protagonist’s backstory.  If your sleuth has a past that affects his current life in some way, that’s always relevant.  Protagonist backstory can also tie into an effective subplot when it deals with the sleuth’s family or romantic relationships.
What about series backstory?  What if you’re writing book 2 or book 3 of a series and are worried that readers aren’t following along?
I think it’s better to fill readers in, but briefly.  Keep it really succinct. After all, you might even need to reacquaint even your regular readers if it’s a traditionally published series…frequently, those books release once a year and readers might need a bit of a refresher.
Characters recurring from an earlier book in the series could be quickly identified in a way that won’t be obvious or irritating to the returning reader.  John, Beth’s brother, commented on….  Short tags that act as reminders.
If you like, you could also keep some backstory as a small mystery in itself.  Regular readers might remember that John and Tom don’t like each other—and they’d remember why.  But a new reader might read some of the tension between the two characters, read the terse dialogue, and wonder about their relationship.  Adding hints as to the source of the problem can keep a new reader turning pages—as long as it’s ultimately addressed or if there are more hints to the underlying issue as the story progresses.
You could also reveal backstory with dialogue (make sure it’s not stilted), a character’s thoughts or memories, or even flashbacks.  All of those will work if given in small doses and done well…if it’s not done well, it can be awful.
How do you slip in character backstory?  If you write a series, how do you handle series backstory in your sequels? 
Image: MorgueFile: Mensatic