Background Information

Background information shouldn’t be confused with backstory. When we talk of background, we’re referring to the peripheral details that writers use to colour certain areas of the story. It provides extra information for the reader and therefore makes the story more immersive.

Backstory refers to past events which form the development of the character and story arcs, while background provides a little bit of context to the action taking place in the present. Background is all about the details that can help layer a story and provide some depth, such as where and when the scene is taking place, or subtle things that are happening within the scene.

It’s important that you show the reader the background for each scene, otherwise they won’t be able to build a picture in their mind.  Writers often forget to describe where the characters are in relation to a particular moment in the story, which can make it difficult for the reader to follow what’s going on. Readers need details. If there are no details, then there’s little point to any story.

Hinting at the background needs only a few sentences of description, but it lets the reader know that a particular scene is taking place in a certain location. If you don’t tell the reader, they’re left guessing, so it’s important to impart background information, for example.

From his vantage point along the platform, he noticed the haze of the sun that nipped into sight rom above the sloped roof of the train station and coloured the sky with an inky blueness. The glow highlighted contours on his face, and also the indentations of the clouds that hung over the city, its underbelly a warm, golden hue. And then he noticed her as she rushed towards him.

‘Hope you haven’t been waiting long,’ she said, breathless...

With this example, the reader knows instantly that the characters are on a train platform, perhaps about to catch a train, and it’s early evening. Imagine the same scene without any of that background:

From his vantage point he noticed the haze of the sun and coloured the sky with inky blueness. The glow highlighted contours on his face, its underbelly a warm, golden hue. And then he noticed her as she rushed towards him.

‘Hope you haven’t been waiting long,’ she said, breathless...

Without the hints about where the characters are in the scene, it makes it difficult for the reader to imagine it. It’s unclear where the scene is taking place and it’s hard to know what time of day it is. Snippets of information that provide background also give the reader context. Your job as a writer is to ensure the reader is fully immersed in your story, so it’s important to offer hints in the background to help them do that.

Remember that whenever you change scenes, provide some details to the reader about where the scene is, and what is happening around the characters, but also give them some interesting description so they can picture that scene in their minds.  Remember to show, rather than tell.

Background can also refer to a character. Character background and character backstory are pretty much the same, as someone’s past will always influence them in the present.  It’s all about the finer details that the reader needs to know about each character so that it helps them build a picture of them.

A character’s background shapes who they are in the present story, so certain bits of of information – things like the people they have known, or events that have happened in the past – can be weaved through the narrative at the right moment to help continually build an image of the character in the reader’s imagination. Did they have a skilled job in the past, which might help them in the present story?  Do they have skills and experience in different things, which they can call upon? How has their childhood shaped who they are? Are they happy, sad or troubled?  What drives them? 

These kinds of elements can provide background to who your main character is. That’s why it’s important to know your characters well before you begin writing the story, that way you won’t fall into the trap of stalling or hitting a writing blockage. Information gives your reader context to the why and how of a story.

So when you write each scene in your novel, think about the background information that the reader needs and how they can use that information to build a picture in their mind.

 

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