Writing Tips & Advice
Backstory is everything that happens before the main action of your novel begins--the background
information about a character, place or thing that provides a greater picture for the reader. Unfortunately,
writers often love backstory more than readers, but since most characters experienced life before your
novel opened, some backstory will almost always be required.
It's important to remember that backstory slows down the momentum of the story, and too much can even
bring it to a screeching halt. It’s a balancing act—too little and your readers may be confused, and too much
may put them to sleep. It's wrong to think that you have to explain everything about how the character got to
this point for readers to follow the events. Readers usually prefer to figure some things out for themselves.
Never substitute backstory for character development or some event in the main story. If you can make the
same point in the main story, do it there. And never include backstory that isn't somehow referenced later in
the main story. Follow Chekhov's gun theory: If you put a gun on stage in the first act of a play, it should be
fired in the second act.
Some valid reasons to include backstory include:
- Explaining a character’s motivation
- Enhancing a character’s personality; their psyche, what shaped them
- Making the character appear more real to the reader
- Adding a strong emotion to the narrative such as irony, regret, or hope
- Educating the reader on important historical facts
- Injecting subtle clues about your character’s past
- Increasing suspense, ratchet up the tension
- Slowing down the pace, after a particularly dramatic scene, for example
There are exact moments perfect for including backstory. The trick is knowing how to spot them. Consider
the following examples.
She grew up with an alcoholic mother and a truck-driver father who was rarely home, not even for the important events in her life.
When she heard the familiar sound of her father’s heavy work boots echo throughout the house as he walked through the kitchen, Mary
hid in the corner of the closet in her room.
“What’s this?” he shouted and then stomped into the living room where her mother was passed out on the sofa, the empty gin bottle
nestled in the crook of her arm. “Get up, you worthless piece of…”
The sound of the bottle being slammed against the wall made Mary jump. “Can’t you even bake a goddamn birthday cake right?”
Dialogue with Another Character
“My mother drank a lot. In fact, she was usually passed out when I got home from school. My father was a truck driver, and when he was
home, which wasn’t very often, he did a lot of yelling and complaining about what my mother had or hadn’t done while he was gone.”
She thought back to her eighth birthday. Her father had come home from one of his long road trips only to find her mother passed out on
the sofa, her ruined birthday cake sitting on the kitchen counter.
Some ways to begin backstory via memories include:
She remembered it clearly.
Six months earlier…
It all started when…
like the time when…
- Don’t include backstory too soon in the book. It’s better to hold off before revealing too much. Let the reader get to know the
character before explaining his past.
- If it’s not essential to the story, leave it out.
- Create suspense by doling backstory out in bits and pieces, enticing the reader to want to know more.
- Make another character need to know the backstory information in order for him to further his own motives.
Also remember that sometimes it’s important for the writer to know the backstory in order to create realistic narrative, even if he doesn’t
reveal it to his readers.
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