As a writer I observe the scaffolding in every crime novel I read. Great hunks of backstory falling on my head all at once just drives me crazy. It takes the joy out of discovery.
I’m reading a Ross McDonald right now set in Los Angles in 1965. Along with Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, McDonald is one of the holy trinity of hard-boiled fiction writers. He wrote a series of books about a P.I, named Lew Archer. I’m attuned to backstory. “Hey,” I’m thinking, “when does he tell me about Archer?” Page after page goes by and all I know is that he’s a tough P.I.; yet, I can’t wait to turn the next page because the story is so good.
I don’t need to know the most important relationships of Archer’s life, where he went to school, or who his first girlfriend was. I’m sure Ross McDonald knew.
But it’s like making a new friend. You meet in a place, in a situation, your roles are pretty much defined. You already know a lot about each other because you meet in a social context. Clothes and speech tell you social class and probably background. How much more do you need to know at the start of a friendship? How much backstory do you need to give to someone you just met on match.com? Save it for therapy.
It’s the same in fiction. Don’t you want your readers to be a little bit curious about your characters and where the story is going? Curiosity keeps us turning pages, guessing what’s going to happen next. Many readers want to pit their wits against the author and figure out who the killer is by page 100. I don’t want it all at once.
I know that backstory creates believability and can create sympathy for your hero who is being badgered by obstacles from all sides. What you know as the author is different from what your reader needs to know about your characters and your story.
I’ve already figured out why the heroine acts as she does. I don’t need her sidekick to tell me, “Oh yes, that’s because Mrs. Weatherwax bullied you in ninth grade."
I figure my readers are at least as smart as I am.
After all, only smart people read and write crime fiction. Right?
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