Backstory: How to write backstory effectively
Backstory is important. Having the reader learn more about your character’s past can help them understand who they are and how they’ll react in certain situations.
However, there’s a fine line between giving useful information to your reader and boring them to tears! It’s important — vitally important — to seed backstory sparingly, and also at the right time.
So when is the right time to seed backstory? How do we go about it? Let’s take a look…
How to seed backstory:
Hold Back As Much As Possible
One trick to keep readers engaged is to leave unanswered questions dangling as long as you can. It can be much more satisfying for a reader to not quite understand why Rosie screamed so loud when her friend banged the door rather than explaining it outright.
Of course, we don’t want to keep this information hidden forever, that would be frustrating, but keeping your reader guessing is a great way to keep the pace of your story driving forward. Backstory can sometimes just slow you down.
Ask yourself: does the reader need to know this piece of information right this second? Would it be more effective to hold it back, or seed it in right away? Learning this balance can really enhance your story.
Show Don’t Tell
We know, we know, this is a cliché you’re probably sick of hearing, but it is so important when we’re talking about backstory. Let’s look at these examples:-
The drawer was jammed. John yanked at the handle, hard — too hard — he jolted back like he’d hit a live wire, struggling to breathe. The familiar pain sent a cold shiver straight through him. He pressed his palm instinctively against his side, expecting blood, but it was an old wound now. Even after all this time, it never had quite healed. Like a lot of things from that terrible night. John tried the drawer once more, straining through gritted teeth. At last it opened.
The drawer was jammed. John yanked at the handle, and when he did the pain erupted. His stab wound was seven months old, sealed shut but still angry as hell. He’d been walking home from work, and bam! Out of nowhere a man tried to steal his wallet. There was a scuffle, they fell to the ground, and that’s when John had felt it: the cold slither of ice as the knife went in. It was the worst night of his life, changing him forever. John tried the drawer once more, straining through gritted teeth. At last it opened.
Out of these two examples, which one makes you more intrigued?
In example one, we’re showing the reader how John has been affected by a mystery event in his past. We don’t have all the details yet, but it’s intriguing. In example two, we’re telling the reader exactly what happened, right up front. Hopefully you can recognise how it slows down the pace of the narrative and it strips the paragraph of tension.
Is it essential for the reader to know every last detail straight away? Or is it more effective to keep the pace — keep the sense of mystery — and seed it in later on?
Sometimes knowing just enough is much more intriguing than having the entire backstory given to you on a platter.
Remember: too much backstory at once can kill the pace of your story. You need to learn how to drip-feed it in. Big chunks of backstory (often known as an “info-dump”) are bad bad bad for your reader!
Backstory: Why should we care?
Another mistake when it comes to backstory is loading it all up at the front, right at the beginning, when we haven’t given the reader a chance to care about your character yet. You need to let your reader know the story — get pulled in by the hook — before we start off-loading backstory.
The reader is interested in the NOW. The reader has been given the seed to the story which is happening ahead of them. The last thing they want to do is do a U-turn and learn about how the protagonist was bullied at school. Keep the momentum going forward, in the direction of your story, and only stop to seed something when you absolutely have to.
What should you seed?
Well, the simple answer is: only what is relevant. You might have done a ton of character work — which is great! And encouraged! — you might know that your protagonist likes only crunchy peanut butter, and they hate summer, and they don’t buy leather, and they used to read Dune over and over when they were little.
Knowing all the little details is important — essential, even — to shaping your character. As the writer you need to know how your character would react in any given situation. But that doesn’t mean the audience needs to know all these little things too.
Think of someone you know quite well. Not a best friend, but maybe a work colleague or a family friend. You could probably imagine how they might react if they, say, were asked to cliff jump. You would probably know how they might react because you know bits about who they are.
You probably have never explicitly asked them their cliff-jumping preferences, but you could have a good guess. Would they be up for it? Would they laugh at the idea? Or would they be scared to death?
You don’t have to know every little thing about a character in order to know fundamentally who they are and how they’ll react.
- It’s important that you know all the little character details as a writer, but you need to see the difference between what is important to you and what is important to the reader.
Holding back information as long as you can is often much more enticing for a reader than giving them everything up front.
Don’t dump backstory in at the beginning of all places. This is a place to keep the pace up and get your reader hooked. Don’t slow them down!
- Wherever possible, show the effects of your character’s past, rather than tell the audience what’s happened.
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