The Magic of a Backstory

The Magic of a Backstory

Posted on September 11 by Steve Burrows in Mystery
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The spotlight shines on the magician’s stage. In the box lies a lady, her torso sliced in two by a shiny, razor-sharp blade. In the audience, breathing stops. Beads of sweat trickle down temples, palm are damp. Can she have survived her ordeal? Is she still alive? Suddenly, the magician speaks: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait a while before you find out what happened.”

It’s hard to imagine any audience accepting such a premise, but mystery writers propose just such a solution whenever they introduce a backstory to their work. For the main plot of a mystery, just as in a magic trick, the reader is entitled to expect a solution by the end of the show. A backstory is different. Sure, the mystery will be revealed, just not yet.

Most mystery authors who write a series will find themselves tempted, one might even say compelled, to create a backstory or two for their characters. A pre-existing history adds complexity and texture to characters, and if these shadowy backgrounds are shrouded in mystery of their own, so much the better. They can thrum along in the background, surfacing in the occasional cryptic reference just to pique the reader’s curiosity, before fading again into obscurity. But like that cluttered room in the basement, a backstory will need to be dealt with. Perhaps not right now, but eventually. Until it is, it will gnaw away at readers and writers alike.

Magic and mystery writing follow the same, time-tested, three-act structure to stage their drama; set the scene, build the suspense, reveal the answer. In magic, these phases are known as the pledge, the turn and the prestige.

In the first Birder Murder mystery, A Siege of Bitterns, I introduced a backstory for my protagonist. In the second book, A Pitying of Doves, I brought in another one. Act One, The Pledge, was complete.

In the third Birder Murder, A Cast of Falcons, I developed one of these backstories and began to unfurl it as part of the main plot. Together, reader and writer gradually made The Turn. All that remained now was the final act. The Prestige for the first backstory was duly delivered in the fourth book, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds. But what about that other story, that other pledge made to the audience? Well, in A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, just as the solution to the first backstory was being revealed, I began The Turn for the second one. And The Prestige for this remaining story? Ah, that will be coming in the fifth Birder Murder mystery, due out May 2018.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait a while before you find out what happened.

Steve Burrows

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
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Steve Burrows

Steve Burrows has pursued his birdwatching hobby on six continents. The first Birder Murder Mystery, A Siege of Bitterns, won the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. The other books in the series are A Pitying of Doves and A Cast of Falcons. Steve lives with his wife, Resa, in Oshawa, Ontario.