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.

When authors feel they must share backstory with readers to make sure the story makes sense, they can decide how much information should be revealed and how much they can continue to hold back. A partial revelation allows suspense to continue while building their curiosity. Admitting the character has done things he is ashamed of could be enough admission. Giving details can come later. This way readers can speculate what the awful things might be.

Numerous methods are available to raise the level of suspense without the story losing its momentum.
1. Keep Emotion High. The character’s struggle means more when his well-being or happiness is at risk. Allow a sense of desperation, fear or hopelessness to be reflected in the character even when the reader doesn’t fully understand.

2. Intensify Action. Keep the story moving forward with action, questions, and hints of deeper problems.

3. Use Introspection. Reliving scenes through thought-processing works as a sort of flashback to the character’s past experience that relates to the secret of unrevealed information. Let the present trigger the memory so it feels real and not just a means of providing information to the reader. Use unconscious situations. A man might awake in the night and snap on the light, his body trembling from a nightmare. His thoughts: Why I can’t I let those horrors go? The old man is dead. He can’t hurt me anymore. What does that do to your imagination? Who is the old man? Dad? Grandfather? Neighbor? Stranger? How was he hurt? Physically? Emotionally? Sexually? Mentally? This provides partial information without details allowing the reader to use her own imagination.

4. Use A Current Repeat Of A Past Problem. If a character’s main issue is being jilted at the altar, provide a new experience when the heroine doesn’t show up for a special event. If a rape has occurred in the past creating serious relationship issues, put her in a fearful situation. If a man fears the loss of his job which he’d experienced in the past, show his anxiety and validate his emotions when he is called into the boss’s office to hear different news, maybe even a job promotion.

5. Create Real Threats and Dangers. As in the situation above, allow the character’s fear of losing his job to be based on things happening in his company. Let him hear the company will let ten men go. Let him think about an error he made once on the job or his lagging quota of sales. Have him see one of his best friends fired. Let his waiting churn and grow in his mind and emotions so that when he gets the call to see the boss, he knows he will lose his job. Then let him learn something not so dire.

Take these ideas, mix them in your unique way or add one of your own that will serve you in creating a tense, emotional story without dumping backstory into the plot at the beginning. Use it wisely and only when necessary. Give pieces of it and not the whole parcel of details. Allow readers to be part of the story. They have intelligence. They love to speculate and question what will happen next. They love the challenge and it will keep them involved and loving your story.


gailmartinMulti-award-winning novelist Gail Gaymer Martin writes Christian fiction for Love Inspired and has written for Barbour Publishing, where she was honored by Heartsong readers as their Favorite Author of 2008. Gail has fifty-seven contracted novels with four million books in print. She is the author of Writers Digest’s Writing the Christian Romance. Gail is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers, a keynote speaker at churches, libraries and civic organizations and presents workshops at conference across the US. She was named one of the four best novelists in the Detroit area by CBS local news. She lives with her husband in a northwest Detroit suburb. Visit her website at  Barbour recently released An Old-Fashioned Christmas Collection, which includes one of her stories. She also has an independent romance mystery, Treasures of her Heart, that released in June, and Better to See You, a September release.

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