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Monday, August 13, 2012

The Zen of Backstory


It's become an almost-taboo word. It's been associated with evil things like info dumps and terrible first chapters and near-dead pacing.

While true, those things are just half the story of backstory.

Backstory is also what gives a novel its emotional value. It explains a character's motivations and deepens conflict. Without backstory, your character is shallow. Her actions and reactions are random and meaningless.

Finding the perfect balance isn't an easy thing to master but you can learn to do it--it's all about relevance, technique, and timing.

The "What"

Backstory is an abbreviated term for "background story". When beginning a novel, the writer must first explore the character--their emotions, their motivations and any relevant history that will impact their actions and reactions.

Just as a background check examines relevant history of a job applicant, so must the writer learn to focus on the character's relevant history.

For instance, a background check for someone applying to drive a school bus will include having their driver's license inspected for driving violations. They’ll also be scanned for a history of child abuse, drug abuse, and other arrests/violations. A prospective employer isn’t going to care if they are on a bowling team or if their favorite color is chartreuse or if they won Best In Show at the recent farm fair.

Relevance is mandatory.

Sometimes it means excluding a lot of nifty stuff about your character. However, just like in the plotting, if the backstory doesn’t directly move the story forward, it doesn't belong in your novel.

The "How"

Backstory must be artfully inserted into the story. Long chunks of narrative are bad things. You think you’re doing a favor to the reader by explaining something but…it’s boring. (and it's often telling, not showing.)

There are several different ways you can handle your backstory:

Flashbacks: These are tough to write because you have to write them in past perfect tense. Use them sparingly…flashbooks look back and stories look forward. Flashbacks lose the momentum.

Monolog: An option if you’re writing in third person subjective POV.

Dialog: A great way (and one of my favorites). Questions, accusations, tones...it all can allude to a character's history.

Prologue: A prologue is still a first chapter because it gets read first. You better make it good because a bad prologue loses a reader's interest.

Memories: Another good way to use backstory. However, don’t get lost in memory lane because…it's boring. Spot memories are better. We don't need to know everything at once.

Internal dialog: Also a good option, but be careful you don’t head hop. Stay in the correct character's point of view.

Props: Why not? A novel's setting is part of the unspoken story. Keepsakes on a mantle, a collection of books, a ring on a necklace. They can all be used as backstory.

The "When"

The trick is writing your character's backstory so that they know something relevant at a time they need to know it and not one second sooner.

Get the story going before you shed light on the backstory. In most cases, you don't want a drop of it in chapter one--just strong forward moving action/story. You may add the backstory as another layer but be sure you don’t smother your story with it – rather dribble it like a succulent chocolate glaze over a buttery Bundt cake, adding flavor and depth.

Backstory should deepen a character. Use it when your character needs to show why they think and feel and act the way they do in different situations.

The Wrap

Relevance. Technique. Timing. These are the keys to finding the perfect balance of backstory.

Too much backstory and your story will stall to a sludgy stop. Too little and the reader will not develop an emotional connection to your characters. If we can't soldier through the slow spots or if we can't care about the characters, we won't finish reading a book.
Learn how to artfully work with backstory so you can find the perfect balance your story needs.
Photo credit: nazreth

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her newly released urban fantasy "Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde" (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).


www.roughwighting.net said...

Good post. Yes, backstory can make or break a book, I believe. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Good suggestions. It's hard to find good advice about backstory.

Liv Rancourt said...

It's a fine line and one that's hard to do well. Good post, Ash!

Ekaterina Trayt said...

It's the best piece on writing backstory I've ever read, and I've read many. Thank you!