Backstory. The tricky, devious little beast. Often as writers, we make the cardinal sin of lacing our stories to death with details that have agents and editors rolling their eyes. Or, worse, forcing our readers to put down our books because they just can’t wade through the muck and mire of backlog we thought was ‘oh so important’.
But without it, how do we get them to care? Or understand our character’s motivations?
Therein lies the conundrum.
So how do we write compelling backstory that is proportionate to the rest of the story? How do we include these important and imperative insights without diluting or distracting from the plot?
I am not going to pretend I have mastered this, in fact, I doubt any ‘writer’ can claim they have, however there are tools that I have learned which have allowed me to re-evaluate and reassess my writing, and I am going to share them with you today.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it relevant to enhancing the plot? – we don’t need to know every blessed thing that has happened in their lives leading up to this point. Only what is going to affect them and affect the story and how they relate to others within the parameters of the novel.
- Does this reveal essential details about your character and their motivations?
- Will this intrigue readers?
- Have you spread things out so as not to overwhelm, distract or bore your audience?
Seems easy enough when it’s broken down so simply, doesn’t it? But weaving backstory is more complicated then you may think. After all, there is no actual science behind it to know for sure how much is too much.
Three ways you can include backstory into your manuscript is through the following:
- Narrative description
- Delving back in time (either in story or in dreams, though I would caution against using dreams in your story as readers tend to feel cheated).
- Dialogue – probably the single most effective as it avoids the big No-No that is telling and not showing.
Be sure to mix it up and don’t rely only on one tool to dispense this information, otherwise readers will quickly catch on and get annoyed. Lets face it, some things we keep pretty close to the chest and don’t share with anyone. Ever. In which case, narrative would be the best way to drop hints and details that the character isn’t willing to reveal to the supporting cast, but is pertinent for the reader to understand the bigger picture.
The key is to keep it simple and brief. We don’t need all the nitty-gritty. This isn’t Judge Judy and you’re not on trial. Focus on the crux of the matter and to give enough context for the picture to make sense, but leave it so that the reader is starved for more.
A bit of mystery is good, especially at the beginning. We don’t want to give it all up just cause it’s Prom night. Make ‘em work for it, that is – keep reading.
So sprinkle them throughout like salivating little breadcrumbs that they have to hunt down and find. Believe me, there’s nothing more rewarding as a reader when you finally reach that point in the story and Ah-HA! That’s why Mr. Right is all brooding and difficult, or WOW! Her obsessive-compulsive views toward personal hygiene finally makes so much sense.
Tip: When relying on dialogue for relating this information, if at any time you can insert “as you know”, then you should seriously consider rewriting as this is the spoken version of ‘showing’.
Bonus Tip: A good point when to use flashbacks or dreams is when there’s a lot of important and relevant information to be conveyed and dialogue or narrative isn’t going to cut it. The main pro to this method is it allows the reader to see, feel and experience the events as they are happening to the particular character. Ideal if it’s a very intense scene or moment.
And as a Bonus, Bonus Tip cause I am feeling generous, employ the simple and basic philosophy – when in doubt, cut, cut, cut. If the structure of the story still stands without it, if your characters haven’t lost their sheen, lustre or interest, if the conflicts and motivations and actions still make sense, then chances are that particular facet of backstory isn’t necessary.
Whatever your methods, the delivery has to be believable.
Now go forth and write awesome backstory that may never see the light of day!