How to Use Background and Foreground

There are all sorts of things that make writing effective. Getting the detail right is crucial, and one of the best ways if to create the right balance of background and foreground. Both make those details count.
But what exactly is background and foreground?
Think of a painting. The main focus is on the subject of the painting and what is going on immediately around that subject. This is the foreground. But away from the main subject, there may also be something in the background – another person or object, bright colours and layers, the kind of things we don’t see right away; things that enhance the whole picture.
That’s how background and foreground works.
The background is something all writers are familiar with. It’s the type of information that is relevant to the story, but is presented in manageable narrative snippets throughout, so as not to be too intrusive. In other words, certain information stays in the background, yet is always present.
Background detail works because the writer can show it to reader from time to time, when the time is right, to help layer the story – things like the setting, snippets of a character’s backstory, historical information on the main character, an important place or something else entirely.
This detail is most commonly placed within narrative. It can also appear in descriptions and can even be presented in dialogue.
Foreground information, on the other hand, has more relevance – it’s what the reader sees as part of the whole story. It’s the important information presented in description and narrative, which is right at the forefront of the story. It is what occurs to the characters in the present moment – it’s what stands out and gives the reader immediate information about the story and characters.
Together, foreground and background provide a detailed picture to the reader – they provide perspective, depth and dimension to create the perception of a three-dimensional world. While the foreground provides immediate information, the background provides context.
The best way to see how foreground and background work is to study a painting or photograph. Our eyes are immediately drawn to what is directly in front of us; we see the main picture. But there are also details that we can see in the background, things we wouldn’t normally see, things we don’t really look for. They can be hard to spot, they can be subtle, or they can be obvious, but every component in the background helps make the whole picture.  Every detail, large or small, helps to layer the story.
When to use background and foreground isn’t as hard as it might sound. Foreground forms part of the story in the way you “show” the reader – the details provided through your dialogue, description and narrative, as well as through character actions, and that’s what the reader focuses on. The background, however, should only become apparent at the right opportunity. Don’t drop in background information for the sake of it. It must be effective rather extraneous. It must help move the story along, so reveal a little bit of background at those moments that are crucial to the plot.
Tease the reader with snippets, hints and clues. And remember how a photograph or painting works. Behind the main subject there always lies something else.
Next week: How to avoid deus ex machina


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