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Backstory: Weaving It In Without Slowing the Pace

© Winnie Griggs, Feb. 2005

What is Backstory?  Quite simply, it is everything that happened to your characters from their birth up until the point your story opens.  So, by definition, all backstory is important, because, for fully realized characters, everything that came before shaped them into who they are today. 

However, while it is important for you, the writer, to know all of the minutiae of your characters’ history, you want to avoid the ‘info dump’ syndrome when revealing backstory to your reader.  In other words, don’t serve up the detail in a dense chunk, or in a contrived, author-intrusive manner. 

So how do you give the reader the information she needs without making her eyes glaze over?  By paying attention to the what, when and how of your backstory revelations.

WHAT:  Include only the bits and pieces necessary to keep the reader with you.  You want to trickle the information in rather than deluge the reader.  In other words, don’t toss in information for its own sake - it must serve a purpose (i.e.: foreshadow, show motivation, escalate tension/conflict, etc.). 

WHEN:  Provide background information only when it is absolutely necessary to further the action and development of your story’s current situation.  In other words, it should answer a crying need for the reader to know this information at this point in time.  Revealing information too soon can deflate tension and steal the opportunity to have a ‘WOW, I didn’t see that coming!’ moment later in the book.

HOW:  There are a number of different methods you can use.  Some of these are:

  • Flashbacks: These are sections of backstory, told in present tense as if they are happening now.  They can be quite effective if used properly, but use them sparingly and keep them tight.  Flashbacks tend to take the reader away from the current action of the story.  If you run them on for too long you risk causing the reader to temporarily lose the thread of your story. 
    When using a flashback, always provide some relevance to the current situation. 
  • Prologues: This is a special form of the flashback. A prologue must provide essential information for the reader to know before the ‘here and now’ of your actual story.  It should recount a significant event that is important for the reader to experience in real time with the character.  Again, make certain the information is essential to have up front - that it wouldn’t be better served woven in later in through one of the other methods listed here, and then whittle it down to the bare essentials.
  • Dialogue: Make certain the backstory-revealing-dialogue flows naturally from the characters and the current situation.  Take care to avoid the infamous  “As you know, Jane” scenario where one character is relating something to another character that they obviously both already know and have no logical reason to discuss other than to inform the reader.  Backstory through dialogue is most effective when it both reveals the past and adds to the present situation.
  • Introspection: This is probably the most commonly used form of weaving in backstory.  It involves having a character think about some event in his/her history that parallels or contrasts the current situation.  This method normally employs trigger elements - that is, some action or object in the here and now triggers a memory.  Again, make certain you keep it relevant and tight.

There are other, more subtle methods, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll save those for another discussion.

So, next time you’re ready to impart a juicy nugget of hero or heroine backstory, take a moment to consider the how of your revelations.  Your readers will thank you for it.

Happy writing!

 

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