Creating Suspense Through Backstory
By Gail Gaymer Martin
Backstory fulfills a multitude of purposes from creating characterization, goals, motivation and conflicts. But today, think of backstory as a way to build suspense in novels from thrillers to romance. Suspense results from elements in your story that captures reader’s curiosity and pulls them forward searching for the answers. Will Sam find out about Andrea’s secret life? Will Andrea understand Sam’s fear of commitment before it’s too late? Will Jeb kiss Kate? Will Bret reveal the truth when Julia begs for answers?
Putting backstory too early in a novel is not only boring, it destroys its power to surprise readers. Learning to balance the revelation of backstory is a technique writers benefit in learning. Learn when to reveal backstory, how to reveal it and when to hold it back. Give serious thought to backstory before you supply information to the reader. Is it necessary to share this information now? Will it make a difference? Is it important if the reader doesn’t fully understand the reason the character refuses to do something or acts uncomfortable about a situation? Does your decision allow the reader to seek out an answer instead of being hand fed it? Will the reader enjoy playing detective and using their own brain to discover or even speculate what might be wrong? Will it mean more and surprise readers later when they know the character more fully?
Withholding backstory until it’s absolutely necessary falls into three categories: Keeping information from the reader, keeping information from a character or all of them or keeping information from one another while the reader knows.
As the author, you know the completed backstory. You can weigh the importance of sharing this information and the benefits of withholding it. Readers do not need nor want to know details too early. They prefer to figure things out for themselves. I have received thank you letters from readers for allowing them the enjoyment of using their own methods of searching for answers and discovering the truth, and they indicated being disappointed in authors who explain everything to them. So give that thought as you share information.