Backstory is behavior, David Corbett, one of my wonderful writing teachers, taught me.
While writing my first novel, You Beneath Your Skin, I found writing backstory quite the challenge. I wanted the reader to know everything about all the characters, immediately. While I hope I don’t make that rookie mistake any more, writing backstory remains one of my weaknesses–how much, when, and how still puzzles me when penning the first draft.
This post is to celebrate the launch, as much as it is for me and other writers to learn more about writing backstory into our work without bringing the pace to a crashing halt.
Backstory: The Birthing Ground of Our Characters’ Motives
The thoughts, feelings, and actions of characters moving through their life’s challenges provide a rich palette for storytelling. If characters behave with constancy inside a smart plot, our readers will trust them (and our work). Each character’s behavior follows motives, which we authors take pains to draw up. In turn, those motives were formed from events and consequences in our characters’ pasts. When presented in a book, these histories are called backstory.
Because writing is linear—words on a page—it is a challenge to include past information without throttling the forward motion of our story. It’s best if we add it in ways that drive the story.
For insight, examine how you include backstory in each scene of your day.
Writing Backstory in General:
- Sprinkle backstory in. Think: chunks in a soup, not the broth.
- Because a story’s momentum is magic, don’t let anyone catch you adding backstory.
- Both readers and characters should agree on the need for that past information at that moment. Let’s agree that fight scenes are not good times for backstory.
- Each departure to the past should have a seamless link with the scene. A threat reminds us of a past trauma or of being saved.
Writing Elements that Summon and Guide Backstory:
Every writing aspect can reveal backstory. Use them all; make them art forms.
- Genre: In action narratives, short sentences are normal. Literary fiction might meander. In historical fiction our language should mirror the style and voice of the person(s) involved.
- Inner monologue: Be true to the character. If she is not reflective by nature, don’t have her reflect. Simply stay with her likes and dislikes, with her hopes and fears etc.
- Memory: A scene detail that triggers a memory opens the door. Forcing this is a mistake. If the memory is as emotional as the scene, your shift can drive it and you can go deep.
- Dialogue: An extraordinary place to lay out a character’s past. But make this natural for the character and important for the plot. It works best if the triggering line of dialogue is said or asked by a different character. Emotional scenes are gold for this. Being succinct can make the scene sparkle. If we misuse this even once, readers will lose trust in our dialogue.
- Perceptions as Triggers: EG: Landscapes, an antique table, a dark alley, smells, and accents.
- Gestures: Body language reveals a character’s past and her choices. Mouths and eyes tell many things. Turning away from a kiss, holding someone too tight.
- Marks and deformities: Scars, missing fingers, and needle tracks are tales begging to be told.
- Voice: in whichever technique above, it should feel of a piece with the language and energy.
- Exposition: straightforwardly explaining something or stating what happened in the past. Usually an omniscient choice, which tends to clash with a close third-person narrative. Having a character do this is deadly. Readers find this authorial voice creepy or preachy. Avoid the tendency to create an information dump, unless this IS the voice of the novel. A first person narrator doing this is more forgivable. Hopefully her constant narration is part of the story’s magic.
Writing Backstory: The Short and Long of It – Brushstrokes and Flashbacks
Brushstroke—a phrase or a sentence at the perfect time can cause earthquakes. When linked to the moment and relevant to the plot, brushstrokes have great power.
- As they beat him, he thanked his father for toughening him with blows he took to protect his mother. [Reveals family history and his traits of bravery and selflessness.]
- “I don’t get it. Why have you always buckled to his demands?”
- The wailing sirens conjured her brother’s face the night police shot him like a dog.
Flashback – a longer passage works best if it is central to the story.[Example: In a pivotal first meeting one man says to another,,,]
“We know what happened to your father.”
Finn flashed Viktor a look. “You know?”
The day after his mother had howled that his father would never be coming home, Finn, then six years old, found the pieces of his father’s photograph in the trash. In the early years when she slept, he would fit his father back together on his desk. Even now, the meticulously repaired image traveled with him in a laminated cover.
What if you think the reader needs a bunch of clarifying information? Reconfigure the scene or how the story gets there. Or put a character in a position of stress (draws readers) that demands he tell that information.
An Example of Being Heavy-handed, pulled from a bestselling thriller: “The FSB was today’s version of the KGB, which itself carried all the murderous past of the notorious NKVD under Stalin.”
A Parting shot: look for backstory in every passage you read.
As readers, have you ever been annoyed by backstory, or craved for it? As authors, do you find writing backstory tricky? Do you have questions for Thomas?
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