Incorporating Backstory

"Bring the past only if you're going to build from it." Doménico Cieri Estrada
When I heard the above quote on a recent Criminal Minds episode the idea for this post struck me.  How else better to sum up not only the importance of backstory in a novel, but also its purpose?

In the writing community the term backstory can conjure up a negative connotation, and bring to mind endless paragraphs of “filler”.  But backstory isn’t a bad thing – when used correctly.  In fact, infusing a MS with sprinkles of backstory is essential to helping the reader draw closer to your characters.  Without any background, your characters wouldn’t be realistic.  It would as if you tore them from another dimension and dropped them into the world you created.  They would move as shadows on the page without any depth.  (See series on this blog “Developing Characters You Can Pinch”)

So why does backstory get a bad reputation?  When it isn’t done correctly, and weaved into your MS with the skill of a craftsman, it can read as perfunctionary, as an “info dump”.  Some writers, especially ones just starting out, tend to think the more they tell you the better – not the case.  Share just enough to keep your reader interested, and relating to your characters.

As in the quote above, focus on the reason you’re sharing that element of a character’s background.  If you’re going to build on it, if it’s relevant to your story, then it has a place in your novel.  Instead of distracting a reader, slowing the pace, or ripping your reader right out of the book, it will draw them in.  Be cautious of keeping the background information you share limited in quantity.  Sometimes, it may be necessary to give a recount of a past event, but keep it as interesting and succinct as possible to keep the flow of the book moving forward.  Avoid getting weighed down with the past.  Your readers have come to see what "adventure" lies for your character now.

Be sure to come back next week as I expand on this topic in a post called “What to Reveal and What to Withhold”.

So what are your thoughts on backstory?  How do you go about weaving the necessary details into your manuscript?

Comments

  1. It's a fine balance between too little and too much - and all has to be relevant. I'd say that balance only comes with experience in novel-writing and good editing.

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  2. Great advice! This is the one last hurdle I've been dealing with the most in my WIP's final draft. It's a fantasy, which by their nature seems to always be in danger of filling itself with superfluous back story - when building a fantastical world and populating it with what tends to be lots characters, its easy to want to "info dump" as much as you can. Blending it into the story so as not to have chunks of back story and sticking to interesting and relevant stuff is key. It also forces a writer, I think, to know their story that much more. Because you sort of have to know as much back story detail as you can in order to flesh out what is best left in the story and what is best left in your head.

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  3. Back story is a necessary evil in any fiction novel. It's all in how the writer goes about revealing it to the reader. In my first attempts at writing my first book I failed miserbly with intergrating back story. It was always TMI, and immediatly pointed out to me by my betas. It took me several attempts and much self discipline to stop overdoing it. I just have three little words of advice when it comes to back story: Sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle.

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  4. Bit by bit is the way to go. Just enough to wet the appetite but not too much to drown the reader.

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  5. Hemingway said that writing fiction is a lot like an iceberg. What the reader sees is the visible part of the iceberg; what is under the surface, the bigger part of it, aka the backstory, better be something that the writer knows and understands. If you as the writer don't know what happened before the story in your character's life, then your reader won't care either.

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  6. Thank you for the comments everyone.

    And Geoff I definitely think you're right when you say it forces the writer to know their characters that much better. It gives us more to pull from - what's pertinent, and what isn't. A character's background isn't just evidenced in a few sentences, but reflected in their viewpoints, their attitudes, etc. You need to know them for that.

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  7. Well said. Weaving it in bits at a time is the key! We don't want the info dump! Great post; thanks for sharing!

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  8. Thank you for commenting Kimberly, and welcome to my blog.

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  9. Great advice, Carolyn. It's something for me to think about as I revisit my book and make edits for the repub in e-book format.

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  10. lesson learned the hrad way - in an aw crit...but i think i get it. back story is more for the writer, if it comes up in the story it shouldnt look like an info dump, it should be smooth

    glad to see we all agree

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