YOU KNOW HOW THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR? A backwards glance can offer us a new perspective on where we’ve been. Like a literary rear view mirror, backstory lets readers know where we—or our characters—have come from. In doing so, backstory can reveal a character’s motivation, which, in turn, may elicit sympathy for that character’s present, less-appealing actions or attitudes.
What is backstory?
Whether we’re writing memoir, fiction, or a piece of literary journalism, backstory gives context to the story being told. It comprises events—internal (an anxiety attack, for example) or external (loss of a child, for example)—which have occurred before the story starts and are relevant to the story being told.
In a story about a dissolving marriage, the loss of the couple’s child would certainly be relevant. If the child died before we meet the couple, then the death and the characters’ subsequent emotions are backstory—relevant past events.
In a story about a woman wanting to break the World Land Speed Record, the loss of the main character’s best friend’s child would likely not be relevant to the unfolding of the main story thread.
How can we use backstory most effectively?
Wait, wait, don’t tell me!
Opinions (of course) vary about how soon is too soon to incorporate backstory. For instance, brilliant film-and-novel-writing guy Robert McKee of STORY fame says to avoid backstory completely for the first three chapters! He believes this gives readers a chance to attach to the forward-moving story, creating a reason for them to care about what’s come before.
Other quite successful writers, however, actually start with backstory. In fact, thriller writer Julie Compton and I created a backstory workshop based on her well-received novel RESCUING OLIVIA, which introduces a fairly lengthy backstory passage quite early in the book. (CLICK HERE to read a post that uses RESCUING OLIVIA’S opening for an example.)
It is typical, though, for writers to hit the ground running. They’ll often start a first chapter in media res (in the middle of the present action), and then, in chapter two, turn back to consider earlier events to give their opening context.
Just say no to the info dump!
An “info dump” is a big chunk of information—especially backstory—“dumped” onto the page all at once. Whether your dump truck delivers your backstory via dialogue, narration, or internal narrative, readers will have trouble processing, and thus, remembering, backstory given in too big a lump.
Instead, think of backstory as breadcrumbs. Scatter small bits along the unfolding story path, informing your reader of what’s happened in the past on a need-to-know basis.
Ways and means committee
Among other techniques, you might deliver backstory via
- flashback (a past experience given in scene—including sensory detail and a “real-time” unfolding of events)
- dialogue (your characters simply discuss events that happened before the story started)
- or as internal narrative (your character remembers events and considers them internally).
No matter how you deliver it, though, use as light a hand with backstory as you can. Err on the side of less is more.
Enough about me! What do other folks have to say about backstory?
You might also like this WRITER’S DIGEST article: “How to Weave Backstory Into Your Novel Seamlessly,” by Brian Klems
Finally, if you want to thumb your nose at my light-hand-with-backstory approach, here’s a super-successful memoir that shovels in about one full ton of backstory—in pretty large doses—and does so beautifully: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed.