Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Lesson in Backstory, from Lisa Gardner's The Survivors Club

When Police Detective Sergeant Roan Griffin is introduced to the readers in The Survivors Club, he's talking to himself. He's rehearsing what he's going to say in response to certain questions, comments, when he arrives at his 8:30 briefing.

"Welcome back," they'd say.

"How are you doing?" they'd ask.

"My anxiety is operating within normal parameters," he'd reply.

Why would a police sergeant be nervous about going to a standard briefing? What's wrong with the man?

New York Times best selling author Lisa Gardner didn't answer these questions yet--and doesn't for quite some time. Instead, she gave us a six-paragraph backstory that begins with describing Griffin's stellar background in law enforcement, moves momentarily into his first introduction to Cindy (who we discover later became his wife), and finishes with memories of a specific event:

Two and a half years ago, when the third kid vanished from Wakefield and the pattern of a locally operating child predator became clear, there had never been any doubt that Griffin would head the investigation. He remembered being excited when he'd walked out of that briefing. He remembered the thrum of adrenaline in his veins, the flex of his muscles, the heady sense that he had once again begun a chase.

Two days before Cindy went for a routine checkup. Six months before everything went from bad to worse. Eleven months before he learned the true nature of the black abyss.

For the record, he'd nailed that son of a . . . For the record.
Lesson #1: Start with a hook. Although the backstory was a good read, Lisa didn't use it to introduce her character. She didn't begin the chapter with, "Griffin had joined the Rhode Island State Police force sixteen years ago. He'd started with four months in a rigorous boot camp . . . " If she'd begun with this dry biographical record of Griffin's accomplishments, she would've bored her reader to tears.

Instead of establishing his credibility at the first of the chapter, she put his credibility in question. She introduced him from deep inside his own head at a vulnerable time. For whatever reason, he was nervous about going to a routine briefing. This introduction captured the reader's attention--hooked him.

Lesson #2: Keep the backstory brief and immediate. We don't know who Griffin's parents are or his deepest high school secret, although Lisa undoubtedly knows. Her characterization is so realistic she probably writes 10,000 words per bio. But the reader doesn't need to know everything she does about the characters. What we needed to know is that Griffin wasn't always a nutcase, has police work in his blood, and had a case that ate at him. That's all we needed, and that's all Lisa provided at this point.

Lesson #3: If you write it, use it. Everything that Lisa wrote in this backstory served a function. The work record spoke immediately to her opening scene of Griffin talking to himself. Cindy, who was mentioned only twice in the entire segment, later became a major element, a heart-breaking twist, a wrenching pain in Griffin's gut. (If you've guessed it's because she died in the story, you're wrong. She died before the story began. I'm not giving spoilers: you'll have to read the novel.)

Lesson #4: Write a powerful ending to the backstory segment. Gardner's last line served as a hook on its own. We are now hooked on the character. Whatever he endured, we admire his grit, we're proud of his success. And we wonder why the man who nailed the bad guy is now worried about a simple briefing.

Backstory shouldn't be gratuitous. Make its word count earn a place in your novel. Maneuver it to serve your purpose--which should be to keep your reader hooked. Be discriminating in what you choose to reveal. Be merciless against uselessness. Ax the dead weight.

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  1. good essay...provoked good ideas. -- RMW

  2. Excellent advice, Linda. Just a word of warning, though: it takes a VERY good author to make backstory beyond a sentence or two to work that close to the beginning of the book. Following your advice would go a long way towards getting a person there, but the general rule for many agents and editors is still that they don't like to see backstory in the first chapter. So if you try it, make sure it REALLY works.

  3. Good points to consider, especially when I'm getting ready to polish a novel which has some heavy elements of backstory. :) Thanks.

  4. It does a good rule of thumb that we must care about the character before we care about their back story.

  5. Great points, Linda. Gardner did a fabulous job hooking readers into being curious enough to read right through her backstory. I would have read through even if it were boring - and it wasn't.

  6. another good "presentation". Thanks Ms. Linda,,,glenn

  7. Hey, Glenn, glad you liked it. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Good thoughts here. I have one novel that is plaguing me with backstory segments and I'm trying to figure out how to best handle them. Thanks for sharing, Linda.

  9. What also makes this back story stand out for me is the use of description: the thrum of adrenaline, the flex of muscles, the heady sense. We *feel* his back story instead of merely being told it.

    Great article, Linda.