Backstory—How and Why to Avoid the Dump

So many new writers think they need backstory. Right away. On the first page.

“I need to explain why my character cries at sad movies or hates the rain or believes she’ll never find love. You don’t understand,” they say.

I do understand.

Like a real person, a fictional character carries a past laden with family, friends, and experiences. A character’s early life absolutely affects her later choices, reactions, and emotions.

In chapter two, if my character is paralyzed with fear and refuses to leave a burning building, the reader needs to know why, right?

Wrong.

If you want to emotionally impact your reader, hook them into your character’s life, and snag them on the journey you’ve set out, let the reasons unfold.

Keep them asking why.

Wikipedia defines backstory as, “the literary device of a narrative history and set of facts and factors all chronologically earlier than, and related to, a narrative of primary interest. Generally, it is the history of characters or other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative’s start.”

I define backstory as anything that isn’t telling the story forward.

Write out your character’s backstory in a section of notes for yourself and then break it up into small chunks and sprinkle them throughout the book. You can do this by using internal thought, dialogue, actions, and reactions. With each new situation you put your character into, the reader will discover the backstory slowly.

In your burning building scenario, paint a picture of the incapacitating panic and her reaction to it. Give your reader a hint, but don’t tell them everything right away. There will be time to show the reader why the character reacted this way later.

You want your reading asking why. Why is she huddled in a corner? Why is she afraid to move? Why is she hiding, rather than running?

Here’s an example from my WIP.

This is the first time the reader meets Alek and is from Kate, my MC’s, point of view. I’ve already set up that Alek is Kate’s best friend. Without giving you her backstory, we learn a few important things by her internal thought and her reactions.

 

Alek stepped inside the sliding glass door and opened his arms.

Part of me wanted to launch myself into his chest, bury my head in his rumpled shirt, and feel safe. The other part of me knew safe wasn’t what I’d feel. That part won out.

I slid back a step and hugged myself instead.

Come on, Kate. He’s not Bryson. Let him hold you.

Knew that. In my head. But it didn’t seem to matter.

 

So, if I did my job right, you now know that Kate had something happen in her past that makes her avoid touching Alek. And hopefully you’re asking what? And why?

If your reader asks why, it means he’ll turn the page.

And isn’t that we want?

What ways do you sneak in backstory?

Coming next: Tell Your Story Forward

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Just reading about how not to bore our reader with “backstory” and reading your example was exciting to me. Sounds like “show” not “tell.”
    I hope to visit again and again so that I may learn more from you.

    You appear very learned and skillful. I am happy to know that you are willing to share your expertise in the writing area.

    Cherrye S. Vasquez, Ph.D.
    http://www.BooksThatSow.com

  2. Ann McFarland |

    I’ve always heard (good advice) “no back story in the first 50 pages” of a novel. In my WIP I’m hoping that the action choices of my character create enough conflict that the “back story” she is running from is forced to the surface(after the first 50 pages:) My character’s initial status is to hide in her current identity,but ultimately she can’t move forward because of her holding onto the past. “Back story” is the main catalyst of my story. I will have to show this by effect and character arc not tell it! Thanks for your post that underscores the point.

  3. Great lesson to pass along. I did exactly that with my first book. I remember even thinking that I’d use the first chapter to set up the characters so the reader would know them and THEN tell the story.

    Wrong move!

    Now, four published books later, I use every opportunity I can to teach the exact opposite. And even though that first book did end up getting contracted, I feel like I have to give a disclaimer anytime a writer reads it. “Uh, let me explain…See, it was my first book, and…” :-(

  4. Good explanation. I would liken presentation of back story to the development of a friendship. It’s rare when somebody gives you their life story when you first meet them, but as a friendship develops you continue to learn new things. It’s nice to be surprised along the way.

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