I just finished the audiobook of THE ONLY SURVIVORS by Megan Miranda.
WARNING: Do not pick up this book if you have things to get done. Sweet mercy. It isn’t because the characters are likable. There is just something about them that grates on your nerves. But the story itself pulls you in and makes you want to know.
PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD.
I’m serious. I may very well blow the entire plot for you but this book is so well crafted that I just have to talk about it because you are going to want to know how to do this in your own work.
This is a story about a group of teens who grow up after surviving a crash coming home from a school trip. They are riding in two vans that crash and fewer than 10 of then make it out alive. Almost one entire van is lost. Every year they get together at the beach.
But why? They don’t talk about their lost classmates. They don’t even seem to especially like each other. There are definitely some strange undercurrents. And this is a big part of what keeps you reading. Why would they get together? What actually happened? You want to know.
The story uses multiple points of view but the primary narrator is Cassidy. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group, not being as wealthy and privileged. Not being a glamor girl or highly visible. In fact, she’s incredibly easy to overlook.
But because she’s so easy to overlook, she knows things. People say things in front of her that they wouldn’t say in front of anyone else. She observes interactions. What happened?
Some of the information comes out in flashbacks. The flashbacks are often from someone else’s point of view. From the flashback, you see how limited the information is that everyone else has. You learn about the woman who, as a teen, was infatuated with a teacher. Could she have done something that led to one or more of the deaths? You learn about the athlete who couldn’t swim. Could he have killed someone in saving himself? You learn about two kids who weren’t supposed to graduate and thus shouldn’t have been on the trip. What did they know? Who could they have coerced into letting them go?
The problem with backstory is that you can’t just throw it in for no reason. Sometimes it helps fill the readers in so that they don’t lose the thread of the story. Other times it is used to explain motivation — why doesn’t Cassidy feel that she deserves everyone’s respect? What has she done?
It can also force the plot forward. When someone starts picking people off just before and at the latest reunion, alliances are formed and suspicions aired. Then Cassidy realizes that her boyfriend is the killer. It only makes sense once you realize, his sister was one of the victims.
Miranda uses backstory like a pro. Flashbacks are clearly labeled and the narrator quickly revealed. Other information comes out in what K.M. Weiland calls a backstory drip. Bits of critical information come out as a drip here and a drip there. The critical drip for this story?
Several characters believed that the vans swerved to avoid a deer in the road? It wasn’t a deer but Cassidy who had been forgotten, unnoticed and ran down the hill of a switchback to catch the van, falling into the vehicle’s path. She literally caused the accident.
Multiple times throughout the story Miranda reveals that Cassidy is often invisible. In fact, she falls for her boyfriend because he sees her. But it is only when you realize how she triggered so many of the events that all of the rest makes sense. And that final drip of information is only delivered very near the end.
This my friends is how to use backstory and use it well. Intimidating? In a way but well crafted books are amazing teachers. Read and learn, my friends. Read and learn.