Backstory is one of those things that can drive any writer nuts. How much is too much? When do you reveal more? When do you hold back? Too much backstory can sink a story—because you’re not moving the story forward. You’re giving background, and while that can be interesting, readers really want the story to keep moving forward not backward. Too little backstory and you run the risk that character motivations may not make sense—or the reader may not care enough to keep going.
There are no right answers about how to handle backstory, but there are some tips to help you with the art of backstory.
Does the reader really need to know this? This is the first thing to ask. Does the reader really need to know the heroine’s puppy was stolen when she was six? Is this just a cool background fact, or is it a vital plot point? (As in the puppy comes back in the next chapter and he’s magical now.) This is a tough question to answer because you usually want to think, “Of course the reader has to know this.” Be brutally honest with yourself. It is quite possible that you—the writer—needs to know this information, but the reader doesn’t. When in doubt, save the backstory for later.
Can you show the reader instead of telling? What you tell a reader doesn’t have the same impact as showing. Instead of telling the reader the hero is a great guy, show him being great. Instead of telling the reader the heroine knows how to knit, show her doing. Look for places where backstory can be revealed to the reader instead of being told to the reader—it will make the story and backstory more interesting.
Does the reader really need to know this now? Sometimes you need to set the scene or the world for the reader. This is very important when dealing with history or alternate worlds. The reader may need to know how magic works in your fictional world. Or the reader may need to know the importance of manners in another age. These may be vital to making the very premise of your story work—and so the reader needs that information right away. But there really is an art to backstory, which brings us to…
Can you weave in the backstory with a just sentence or two? Go ahead and write those three pages of backstory. Go wild with it. Have fun. Then cut it down to just a sentence here or there. Think of backstory as colorful threads that you want to weave in—not as big chunks. Tease the reader with some information without doing a dump.
How long can you leave the reader waiting? This is a great device that requires foreshadowing. If you HINT at your protagonist having some history or issues from the past, the reader is going to start wanting to know more. Drop enough hints and the reader will then wade through any amount of backstory because now the reader is dying to know more. The good news is you can weave this stuff in after your first draft is done—or cut down on it as you edit the second draft.
Can you add the backstory with something else going on? Readers want conflict—they want the story to keep moving forward. Look at some of your backstory and see if you can have it come out at the worst time possible for your character. Instead of finding out in chapter one that your hero hates heights, have him find out in chapter ten when he’s standing on the edge of a cliff and it’s jump or die. If your heroine has some issues with her mother, maybe they can come out every time the two of them are on the phone and the sniping starts over long dead family issues that neither of them can resolve. Look to add conflict by bringing in the character’s past to that scene. The caution here is don’t overdo this…and do foreshadow with hints (and hints means hints—trust your readers and do not beat them over the head with the same information over and over again because you worry ‘they might not get it’.
Is less more, or is more more? When you’re in the middle of any story and writing madly away it’s very easy to lose all perspective. Get the book—the story—done. Set it aside for a couple of week. Then come back with fresh eyes. Now you’ll be able to look at it to see if you need to add a touch more backstory—or if you need to cut back on the backstory. If the scene is dragging pull out some of that backstory. Is the scene a little confusing, time to add a touch more backstory. Another reader can be a great help here.
Can you use dialogue to add backstory? This can be a great device—or a deadly one. Sometimes you need characters to add to the backstory—but this must be done in character and true to the character’s voice. The last thing you want is a character talking in plot exposition—that’s deadly. Nothing flattens dialogue more than making it all about exposition. Layer in emotion to that dialogue. If you have two sisters who are arguing about something that happened ten years ago, let them use the kind of shorthand siblings would use—in other words, Theresa wouldn’t tell her sister, “Remember when you stole my beau from me and asked him to the dance.” That’s too “on the nose.” Maybe Theresa says, “I remember what happened at the last dance—do you think I’m going to ever let you forget what you did!” Now the reader is also wondering what happened and wants to hear more. But here’s another place to go back to the earlier questions of does the reader really need this information—and does the reader need this now?
Is less skimping on detail? Details are what create the world for the reader and put the reader into that world. It is possible to be so worried about pacing—and a slow story—that you end up robbing the reader of a rich and vivid world. This is where the reader needs to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the world—this is where you can weave in a character’s backstory by how that character experiences the world and their emotions. An artist has a different experience than a soldier—someone who gardens sees the world differently than someone who is city born and bred and couldn’t care less about the outdoors. Use the details to show the world to the reader through a character—it is a great place to use bits of backstory to enrich the story.
Is the backstory missing? It’s quite possible that an idea has carried you away—it’s a great setup, or scene, or concept, but is that all it is? Did you flesh out the characters—or did you dump them into an idea? This is where a character won’t really make sense because the motivations are missing due to not having any backstory. If you don’t know your characters, the reader won’t either. This is where you want to know WHY do the characters act as they do—and why a character might act ‘out of character’ as well. This is particularly important for antagonists. It’s not enough to have the bad guy kidnap the heroine—you need to know WHY he would think this is a good idea, and why he is a good guy in his own mind. It’s not enough to have the ex-girlfriend cause problems just because you need that story idea to work—there needs to be backstory here for her about WHY she would do it (and it needs to be more than ‘to get her boyfriend back’—why would she want the guy back? What’s her deeper reasons and motivations? What’s her backstory?) A lot of times, you as the writer need to know this—then you can figure out if it belongs on the page of the story or just as background you’ve developed so that the characters have strong motivations for what they want.
Finally, did you make it interesting? If the backstory is boring to you, it’s going to bore readers, too. Making it interesting means great writing—clean prose, cutting repetition, and really good editing. Making it interesting means compelling information that fascinates you—and the reader. Lean into your strengths here. If you do great dialogue, do more of that to weave in the backstory in an interesting scene with action. If you do great description, use that skill to make the backstory a compelling read.
The good news in all of this is the more you work on your writing—scene structure, story pacing, character development—the better you get at it. But you’ll also find yourself studying other writers and how they handle backstory, which can destroy your reading pleasure. You’ll end up reading like a writer. But you’ll get ideas on how to deal with the art of just enough backstory.