Past Conflicts as Backstory

A common thing in book series is when there was some kind of serious conflict in the past which is affecting present-day events. Sometimes this conflict is only ever revealed as backstory: the reader is given some basic details of what happened, but never actually sees it on the page. Other times it might be revealed via a flashback: cutting to a scene in the past that shows the reader exactly what happened. But then there’s times that the backstory was revealed in the main narrative, but in a previous book.

How this works out depends a lot on the type of series you’re reading. I’ve read a lot of book series where there is an overarching plotline that spans the entire series. The Wheel of Time is a good example of this; while each book has its own beginning and end point, there’s no complete resolution until the very end. If you picked up a random book in the middle, you’d be lost about a lot of what is going on. Whereas a series like The Dresden Files has a different style, and every book is more self-contained. Events from one book can influence events in a later book, but the stories are able to stand alone. I haven’t yet read a book in the Dresden series that wouldn’t have made sense without the other books.

Sometimes, the difference between these styles can get a bit blurred. For example, I’m currently reading Guilty Pleasures, an Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novel by Laurell K. Hamilton. I picked it up mostly at random without knowing where it fell in the series. While reading it, I’ve learned that there is a lot of backstory for Anita, from the cross-shaped burn scar on her arm, to her past missions slaying vampires with a flamethrower-wielding mercenary, to the hints of a romantic past between her and the vampire Jean-Claude. Not having read any other books in the series, I just assumed that some of these events were things from a previous book. Except that I found out this is Book #1 of the series. Meaning that the backstory in this case had enough depth and detail to it that I believed it was something that actually happened. It’s definitely a good compliment to the author, and I’m sure she had worked a lot of Anita’s background out in advance before writing the first book.

A good example of this is also when a new villain is introduced. In the case of Guilty Pleasures, a vampire named Valentine is introduced early in the book, and we find out he tried to kill Anita several years earlier. She threw holy water in his face, leaving him permanently scarred. The author went into a bit of detail about those events, not quite giving a full flashback, but painting enough of a picture that the animosity between the two characters is quite clear. It worked well, and the story of that past conflict is interesting enough that I almost hope it gets revealed in a prequel story one day.

It’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my own writing. How to manage a series is an issue I’ve been studying for some time, and I’ve blogged about it before. There’s always a question of how much backstory to reveal, and how much turns into long-winded exposition. The balance between the two seems to vary, based on how important the details are and how much you can “show” them instead of “telling” them.

I’m going to keep this in mind as I continue reading this novel, so I can see how the past conflict influences the events to come. I expect Anita is about to get into a lot of trouble with this vampire from her past, and it’ll be interesting to see if the current conflicts are stronger and more compelling based on what I’ve learned of their history together.

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2 thoughts on “Past Conflicts as Backstory”

  1. Laurell K Hamilton is certainly one hell of a writer. I haven’t read her Anita Blake series, but I’m a big fan of the Merry Gentry series. I actually picked that one up and realized I’d entered on book 3, and was duly lost. Granted, her book 1 for that series is much like the one you describe; it’s very lush from the beginning, and easy to think you’re still missing a book. I can only hope to come close to that level of depth.

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