To misquote a famous bard: To backstory or not to backstory. That is the question. Or as I put it in the title… Writing Backstory: Yea or Nay?
What is Backstory in Fiction?
Backstory is exposition or flashbacks about the lives characters have led prior to the start of a book, story or movie.
Is Backstory in Fiction Good or Bad?
Backstory has a bad reputation out there in writer-land. Admittedly the lousy rep is well-earned.
What writer hasn’t loaded too much backstory into their work, effectively stopping the storyline dead in its tracks? I know I have.
After all, I work for hours figuring out these characters’ lives and knowing every moment of their past, investigating their worldview, fears, and beliefs.
I do character sketches—burrowing into their secrets, digging up all the dirt I can.
I tell myself all my intense effort is to write a well-motivated character, but the truth is this: it is fun to peer into someone else’s life. They can’t tell me to butt out, and hey, there’s no stress because this kind of writing doesn’t go in my story. Even though it’s not in my manuscript, I can still use it when calculating my word count, right? And, I don’t have to worry about anyone reading it. Amazing how words flow when there’s no pressure.
Well, now, wait! Why shouldn’t I include it in my book? This backstory stuff is fascinating. Plus, I’ve spent scads of time on it, so in it goes. How else is the reader going to understand and know my characters the way I do?
Writing Backstory the Bad
That’s why writing backstory is dangerous. It’s seductive. Too much of it in the wrong place and your story screeches to a halt and falls flat. Your beginning bogs down and your reader loses interest. A character’s history takes the reader away from the story and stops them, cold. On the other hand, if you don’t use enough or use it in the right way, your characters feel flat—as if they just began on page one—and your reader won’t connect to them.
Writing Backstory the Good
And that’s why writing backstory is good. It’s a tool for you to use to not only deepen your writing and character, but to connect your reader and make them care about the people in your story. It can bring levels of meaning to what is happening in the action. Used judiciously and paced throughout your work, it heightens conflict, tension, and adds a level of worry and suspense. In other words, if you wait to reveal pieces at optimal emotional moments, you score a big bonus and hook your reader, which is something you want to have in the forefront of your mind when shaping your manuscript.
Writing Backstory Done Right
One book that uses backstory effectively is Light on Snow by Anita Shreve. The story is about 12-year old Nicky Dillon and her father as they struggle to put a life back together after a car accident takes the lives of her mother and baby sister. As you can imagine, many scenes between the characters (considering the tragedy they share) are sad, but the real power comes when a flashback reveals the meaning behind perplexing behavior exhibited by Nicky or her father. Backstory takes the moment from sad to heartbreaking. And finally, to healing.
Another example of backstory done right (and in an entertaining movie) is Batman Begins (2005). Bruce Wayne’s journey as he becomes Batman is laced with scenes from his childhood. Each time we glimpse a little of his past, we understand another piece of what becoming Batman means to this character, and it’s much more than the cool gadgets and car. The writers—Bob Kane, David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan—handle backstory with ease, weaving it throughout the script. The flashbacks give connection and understanding between the audience and the character, revealing backstory that is interesting, relevant and meaningful while keeping the storyline moving.
So what do you, the writer, do about writing backstory?
Here are tips:
- Create complete backstory for each of your main characters. Think through their lives until they are fully realized. But don’t feel you need to share all or even most of it with your reader. You don’t need to explain every little thing. Trust what you write, and trust your reader.
- Reveal backstory in small chunks. Don’t stop the story for an “info dump” or you will yank your reader right out of the fictional world you’ve worked so hard to build.
- Keep backstory brief. Interesting. Vital. Compelling. And brief. Did I mention, brief?
- Later is better. Hold off revealing too much. Bring up questions that you don’t answer. Let your character have a secret; it adds to the suspense and drama of what you are writing. The more you can successfully keep from your reader, the more you will hook them.
- Explain backstory through dialogue, if possible. A veiled reference to something in the past can intrigue a reader. If it works to reveal backstory in character dialogue, this is a great technique! But beware, no “as you know, Bob” type of info-dump speech.
- Backstory is necessary when it’s needed for the reader to understand what is happening in the storyline. Don’t be afraid to use it when you need it.
- Buy yourself a pack of highlighters. Print out your manuscript. Or, copy your file and use Word’s highlighting tool. Highlight all the backstory. Yep, all of it. Put it away for a few days. When you think you can turn an objective eye to it, do so. Only keep those highlighted pieces that are essential to the reader understanding the character’s actions and the story.
Like everything in life, backstory can be a blessing and a curse. It must be used in balance. Have you ever listened to someone drone on about irrelevant past? Boring! You don’t want to live in the past, do you? Neither does your reader. Amazing, isn’t it, how the writing process echoes real life?