How to use Background and Foreground

There are all sorts of things that make writing effective. Creating the right balance of background and foreground is one of them, and that starts with knowing what background and foregrounds are.

The background is something all writers are familiar with. It is information that is relevant to the story, but is presented in manageable narrative snippets throughout and slotted into the background of the main story, whereas foreground information has more relevance – it’s information presented in description and narrative that is right at the front of the story; it’s what makes up most of your story.

Background is the story details that the writer shows the reader from time to time, when the time is right, to help layer the story. This includes things like the setting, snippets of a character’s backstory, historical information on the character or a place or something else like a clue. These background details are usually placed within the narrative or sometimes in dialogue and they can also appear in descriptions.

Foreground information 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.

The best way to see how foreground and background work is to look at a picture or photograph. Our eyes are immediately drawn to what is directly in front of us; we see the main picture, what is obvious. But there are also details that we can see in the background, things we are not immediately aware of, or the kind of things we don’t always look for. They can be hard to spot or sometimes, or they are subtle. They can also be obvious, but every component that appears in the background helps make the whole picture.  Every detail, large or small, helps to layer the story to help make it real to the reader.

Writers use hints and clues in the background when writing thriller or crime stories, for example, because readers love to find these clues for themselves. Something mentioned in the background of a one scene may prove important in future scenes as the story unfolds.

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 – details provided through dialogue, description, narrative and also character actions, and that’s what the reader mainly focuses on. The background, however, should 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 some background at those moments that are crucial to the plot. Tease the reader with information snippets, hints and clues.

Together, foreground and background provide a detailed whole 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.

Remember how we look at a picture or photograph.  We see the main focus, but what’s happening in the background to make the whole picture? Sometimes it’s the things that are not so obvious that catches our eye.

Next week: How to avoid deus ex machina



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