Storytelling Technique - When to Use Backstory
Backstory isn’t to be confused with flashback. Instead, when we refer to backstory, it means the characters’ background and history – things from their past that could have an influence on the present story. This could be anything, since every character will have a past, and it’s the stuff in the past that makes them the characters that appear in your story.
On a more complex scale, the more the reader knows about your characters, the more they will care about them, but like flashback, backstory should be handled properly in order for it to be effective.
The reason it’s confused with flashback is because backstory – by its very definition – is the past, and if it is introduced into a story, it has to be handled correctly so as not to alter the forward momentum of the present story or interrupt the flow.
Many writers make the mistake of introducing backstory from the opening chapter in the mistaken belief that the reader should know everything about the characters, their lives and their situations before the story gets going. But rather than be informative, this just kills the narrative. Readers don’t want to wade through page upon page of boring backstory. They want the present story – they want to get into your character’s story right away. They don’t need to know everything about every character the moment the story opens, because all that will be revealed through the narrative and the story unfolds. That way, the momentum and the flow of the story remains uninterrupted.
The aim of the story is to keep the story moving forward, to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and desperate to turn the page to find out what happens next. It’s that sense of expectation that keeps them reading.
Backstory is an info dump waiting to happen – so resist the urge to explain things too soon; otherwise the reader will know all the information and will have little reason to read the story. Moreover, there would be no expectation.
The best way to provide backstory is to avoid dropping anything in the first chapter – it doesn’t need it. You will have the rest of the novel to provide it, when the story demands.
When do you use it?
Backstory is best delivered in layers rather than large chunks. In other words, provide snippets bit by bit so that the reader hardly notices. A line or two here and there, weaved between the narrative, works better. Remember that backstory should only happen when it needs to serve the main story, so for example, if the reader needs to know something from the character’s past because of an incident that has happened in the main story, and some explanation is needed for the protagonist’s behaviour, then backstory can be supplanted within the narrative.
This drip-feed approach won’t affect the story. You can still maintain the flow and momentum and keep the reader intrigued, while still providing background information for the reader.
Look at your first couple of chapters and check if you’ve inadvertently let backstory creep in. If so, cut it and make sure it’s weaved in later in the story, when it’s needed. Your first chapter will be much better for it.