Sunday, May 15, 2011

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?