Backstory – How to Do It

Authors often mention backstory when discussing their novels, but what exactly is backstory and how important is it in novel writing?

Backstory (or background story) refers to the background history of your main characters, and that may include incidents from the past that underpin the narrative of the present story. Back story usually involves the protagonist and antagonist, while there are some writers who include one or two other important characters with backstory, who may share a sub plot. 

How important is it? Why use it?

It’s a useful literary device to support the plot and help with characterisation, however, it’s not set in stone that authors must use it, because they don’t have to. It’s a choice. Many famous authors didn’t use it, such as Hemingway, but those who do want to include it can provide meat on the bones of their story.

On the positive side, it gives something more for the reader other than just basic characterisation - it gives them a history, it provides character motivations and can lend to the reasons behind their behaviours within the narrative, thus lending some depth to the story. On the negative side, it can be difficult to use correctly without burdening the narrative and clogging the pace.

What’s the Most Effective Way to Use It?

Beginners tend to make the fatal mistake of writing too much backstory at the beginning of the novel. This is very common and probably arises from the belief that they have to show the reader the reasons why the story is happening, and why the main character is in such a situation, otherwise how else is the reader going to understand?

But readers are very discerning. They don’t need to be spoon fed. That means you can hold back and reveal backstory a little at a time, rather than reveal everything in one huge narrative chunk, simply because this is much easier for the reader. There is nothing worse for a reader than being confronted by large swathes of exposition. This will just bore them and they will lose interest. The idea is to keep the momentum of the story, rather than kill it.

Often the best way to filter backstory into the story is through the use of dialogue. This means your main characters can drop hints in their dialogue. Another way is through narrative, by using snippets of exposition, but not too much that you fall into the ‘telling’ mode. You can also show it through flashbacks, character thoughts or memories. It can be quite subtle, perhaps just a sentence or two here and there – readers will pick up on it. It doesn’t have to be several paragraphs long and it certainly doesn’t have to come in one giant hit. It can be spread across the novel.

Despite the urge, avoid dumping backstory into the first few chapters. Chapters one to five need to be dynamic; they need to engage the reader and keep them interested. Leave backstory to later in the story, for when it matters to the plot. More often than not, the need for it isn’t as necessary as writers think.

If you feel that you’ve created too much backstory early on in your novel, go back over the chapters and ask the following:-

1. Does the story need it? Is this information crucial to the plot? Can it be filtered in later, when it may be relevant to the plot or the character?

2. Does the reader need to know all this information right now?

3. Does it slow the pace of the novel? Does it seem to drag a little?

If you do find that backstory has crept into the novel in all the wrong places and seems to be strangling the momentum of the narrative, then consider re-writing the chapter to make it better. Don’t push it all into a prologue either – this will kill any interest in your novel.

The advice here is to choose whether you want to include backstory. If you do, make sure you place it correctly, and don’t use too much. There’s no doubt that well-placed snippets of back story give readers much more than the basics – they will glean more from your characters and will have a better understanding of their situation and behaviour. It can be very useful, but it’s not paramount, it’s not vital.

Just remember to spread the backstory across the novel, reveal it through dialogue, narrative and flashbacks/character thoughts, and try to make it subtle.

Next week: The essential fiction writing checklist


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