Backstory Breadcrumbs

Joni's post yesterday (and the lovely Edna St. Vincent Millay poem used as an example) got me thinking of my own theory of backstory, or the setup explaining all that came before the start of any narrative.

It's critically important to begin a story with some conflict, action, inciting incident, or at the very least, a hint of tension. (One of the most common flaws of manuscripts is having pages and pages of dull and static set-up, where a character basically sits around thinking of how he/she came to be at this point.) To really pull your reader in, start dropping your breadcrumbs - tantalizing little hints of something really intriguing, yet mostly shrouded in mystery (though it doesn't have to be a deep, dark mystery) in the background of the unfolding story. The breadcrumbs are there to raise questions, but you don't want to answer them too quickly -- not unless you've dropped an even tastier tidbit farther along the trail.

Suspense builds in the space between the dropping of any breadcrumb and the satisfaction of the reader's hunger to know. Yet by the time you've rewarded the reader with an answer, you've hopefully laid down enough additional questions to get the reader well and truly invested in the story.

There's a balance necessary. Give the payout too quickly, and you lower the reader's tension enough that she won't care what happens. Bring up too many questions or wait too long to answer at least some, and you risk confusing or frustrating the reader.

For a masterful use of "breadcrumbs," check out the opening paragraph of Jeanette Walls' fabulous memoir, The Glass Castle. Notice the magnitude of the question raised, even as the protagonist (Walls herself) exhibits forward motion.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

To read a longer excerpt, click here. But I warn you, if you do, you'll almost certainly be hooked.

The author's handling of backstory can absolutely make or break a book. And especially in the book's beginning, it can be one of the most challenging aspects of the story to get exactly right. But it's definitely worth the effort, even if it means having to revise your opening scene a multitude of times.


Vicky said…
Great post again! And naturally I read the entire excerpt. I've been thinking about beginnings & tension a lot (just read Donald Maas' Fire in Fiction). There's so much that must be done in a 1st chapter, but above all else, the tension - the mystery really - needs to be present in order to hook the reader. Jodi Picoult is a master at this. I'm completely engrossed right now in HANDLE WITH CARE. I love the way she weaves in crumbs from the past at just the perfect moment.
Thanks so much, Vicky! And you're right. Picoult's not a huuuuge bestseller without reason.
Elizabeth Pina said…
Excellent reminder - I love the breadcrumb directive. It is an acquired art though, that subtle weaving of backstory. I hope to get it right one day but it's amazing how many of my WIP's no longer have their original first chapter!

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