How to Incorporate Backstory That Hooks The Reader

Spoiler warning: Spoilers for the John Rain series by Barry Eisler. Also, The Detachment reached #1 on the Kindle store this week. Congrats, Barry!

I don't often read series out of order, but Barry Eisler was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Detachment when he visited the blog. The Detachment can be read as a standalone, although there are references to events from previous books.

 While I often find “here’s what you’ve missed” sections boring, I enjoyed the backstory passages in The Detachment. They actually made me eager to go back and read the previous volumes. Now why would that be? Time to dig out the old magnifying glass.

Here are some sample sections. They center on the relationship between the assassin John Rain, his hitman buddy Dox, and his ex-lover Delilah. [Note: I don't actually know for sure if they describe events from a previous book, since I haven't read them yet, but it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this blog entry.]

Passage 1 (John Rain narrating):

The three of us had been through a lot together: first, as opposing players on hair triggers; then, when Mossad had brought me in to take out a rogue Israeli bomb maker named Lavi, on the same team; and then, most improbably, watching each other's backs for reasons that had nothing to do with national interests and everything to do with personal allegiances. What had bloomed between Delilah and me, I knew, was as improbable as it was precious. 

Passage 2:

I wound up telling [another character] about Hong Kong, and Hilger, and how Dox had walked away from a $5 million payday to save my life, and how I killed two innocent people just to buy time to save Dox's life. 

Passage 3:

[Another character speaking] "You told me [Dox] saved your life." 
[John Rain speaking ] "That was the obvious part. He also proved to me that I could trust somebody. Of the two, I think the second had more lasting effect." 

These passages made me want to know more. But what was it about them that caught my attention?

Some thoughts:

1. They described critical decisions Someone walking away from a $5 million payday to save a friend? Killing two innocent people to buy time? The loyalties and emotions promise an engaging story. (As a side note, the way these passages tell just enough to make you want more is this is a good example of how to get someone's attention by introducing a knowledge gap.)

2. They describe key points of change. Passage one outlines how the relationship between the three characters developed over time – from enemies to allies. Passage three describes how an event fundamentally changed John Rain’s world view.   These are pivotal moments that let the reader understand characters more deeply.

So what lessons to draw from this? Well, at the surface level, boiling down backstory to key decisions and points of change is a good trick for your writer's toolbox. 

But on a broader scale, it's a lesson on what makes a story. Good stories are about life's inflection points, the times when a character’s personality, relationships, or situation change, and the decisions that bring that to pass. These moments are so full of emotion, drama, and conflict that we want to hear more even if we know how things turn out. (This ties in to last week's discussion of spoilers.)

So readers, your turn. Any examples of decision moments or points of change, either from your own writing or from other books? 

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  1. As always, a thoughtful dissection of good writing. This is why your posts get delivered to my inbox. Thanks so much, Liv. Lots to think about.

  2. Really useful stuff to remember! Especially since my WIP has lots of broken up backstory to solve the mystery. I've been paranoid it's too much. I will go back thru it with your notes in mind. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the insight. My WIP includes backstory revealed primarily in conversations between two people who are getting to know each other. Thanks to your post, when I get to the edit/rewrite stage, I'm going to look at those passages with a more critical eye. I have to give my readers enough so they'll understand what kind of people the characters are, but not so much that they can figure out too much of the mystery too soon.

  4. Suzie -- Thank you! I'm glad you found it helpful.

    Pk -- Thanks! One thing that might be different between your case and the case I mentioned though, is that the backstory presented in the Detachment is non-essential, whereas it seems like you need yours to make the story work. so you probably are a bit more constrained in how you present your backstory. But some principles should still transfer though!

    janet -- Yeah, conversations seem like a great place to try to boil things down to essentials. Let me know how it turns out!

  5. Livia, thanks for the kind words and the great insights. Whenever I teach writing, I advise people to read like writers -- that is, to consider what the writer is doing to achieve various effects, and thereby learn the magic tricks behind the magic. It's interesting (and flattering) to be the subject of that kind of analysis!

  6. You have an amazing blog! I love how you have such a different perspective on things!!! Look forward to seeing more. Happy New Year in advance!

  7. Getting backstory right is tricky. Thanks for the assistance!

  8. Definitely the backstory excerpts you posted make me want to know more. I'm going to copy your words and pin them to my writing wall, "Good stories are about life's inflection points." You hit that one spot on.

  9. I haven't read that book, but there's a less-is-more element to it, as well, if that's the basis of what's there. When the reader wants to know more the character is far more interesting sometimes.