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.
Which is why, when one of my wonderful author friends, Thomas Henry Pope, offered up a post on writing backstory, I was thrilled. His dystopic novel, The Trouble with Wisdom, drops soon.
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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This was very informative. Thank you, Damyanti n Thomas.
Thank you so much for your post! This is exactly what I struggle with in writing, and I tend to overcompensate by adding too much descriptive prose instead of going near backstory. Im working on it though, but it will never be natural. These pointers should help though.
Hi Damyanti – how very interesting … thank you for the introduction – it crosses many boundaries here and I’ve noted Thomas and his books. While I will once again say I loved ‘You Beneath Your Skin’ … excellent post by an interesting, new to me, author – cheers Hilary
May I add that Thomas sets the right tone … first in his post for you, Damyanti, and then to the comments I’ve read below – an exceptional guest, I’d say. Cheers Hilary
Hillary, I’m honored and I am happy you found the post helpful.
This was great. I loved, “Let’s agree that fight scenes are not good times for backstory.” Perfect!
And, yes, in answer to your question. There have been times when I felt as if I were being pummeled by preceding events that the author suddenly felt necessary to pack into a scene. Then there are times, I felt as if there wasn’t enough, and I was expected to piece the backstory together myself. I love it when the author gets it just right and the past and present are almost seamless.
And that’s what makes it an art!! Thanks for commenting.
I’ve just finished a bestselling women’s fiction novel and I confess I skipped over a lot. Something important was about to happen so she’d launch into pages of backstory. So annoying.
No matter how many articles we read on backstory it seems hard to incorporate these suggestions. Great article all the same.
Denise, I appreciate you bringing this example. An author who jumps to backstory as the pacing demands otherwise may be insecure about placing backstory by other techniques. And just hoping the reader will be excited enough to hang through the blah, blah. And pages of backstory? The author needs to consider what the story really is. In my view this is never warranted.
We see this in mediocre movies and TV shows as well, a tease of excitement and/or meaning and then cutting away…to another character or a backstory. The writers should go back into their creative caves and rebuild their stories so this is unnecessary. Unfortunately this technique, if we can call it that, has been used for so long, is appears to many to be a main street or worse, even the way a story should be told.
My novels tend to jump around in time. The one I’m writing at the moment has two narratives running concurrently – the present time, and a period in the characters’ past. I do still put some brief comments in the present narrative from time to time, perhaps by way of explaining one of the character’s current behaviour, but I’m also taking the reader into the past and showing it in real time. Of course, where each chunk of the past is placed is crucial – if I get it wrong, I could be in trouble! But get it right, and I think (hope?!) it can be very effective. I think it’s a good way of bringing past events to life, and helping the reader to understand the characters better. But I wonder if many other writers work this way, and what readers think of the approach?
Your raise a lot in your comment. Without seeing the pages, I can’t fully assess your technique, but in literature whatever works is okay. Is it right to say that you use a full emersion in the past as a concurrent story? Are you telling two stories or using the past story to convey what backstory attempts to do? As long as the reader doesn’t find the approach ponderous, it may be fine. If you can at the same time show something more profound than events then and now, such as how beings evolve over time, that might be splendid.
If you are working with an editor, what does she/he think?
Your tips and tricks come in very handy. In my latest I was pleased with the way I handled the backstory of a character (excerpt on my blog today). But I don’t think I’d have done it like that if I hadn’t written some short stories about his past. In fact I’ve done several short stories to fill out characters’ histories, and I enjoy doing it. I think it helps to avoid information dumps (even if your readers haven’t seen the short stories!).
your contribution today to this subject is very helpful. Writing out our characters’ backstories is a good way to learn about them. It helps plant in our author subconscious the intricacies of a character’s responses to situations that simply “emerge” as we write, seemingly without effort…. which makes the voice read as authentic. They are speaking and acting as they naturally would. It is often the smallest details that build reader confidence in our telling. Often we say to ourselves, “where did that come from?” after writing something that seems a surprise. But we do the work every time we sit to write and more importantly as we let the character roam in our imagination when we are not at the desk. Thank you for joining the discussion. And best of luck on your writing.
Thanks a bunch for this article. Its very informative and quite detailed. Backstory, in my opinion, is the trickiest thing to get right. But, the tips on making the transition seamless and littering the dialogue tags with hints – SUPER HELPFUL!!
Hi, is it Sonal?
I am happy you found the article useful. Though most of the hints and tips address our writing process, equally important are the disciplines of 1) reading everything with an ear (and eye) for backstory to see what and what not to do, AND 2) listening to your ongoing story line, that voice in your head that comments on everything you do–we ALL do this–every minute of the day. With the latter, you will begin to pull out thoughts and logics that connect back to memories, particularly the ones loaded with emotion. Because they involve strategies for survival in the attraction/avoidance world. This will help you lay such strategies and responses into your characters. Have fun.
Thanks a bunch! I am going to pay more heed to these voices now. 🙂
Those are great suggestions for backstory. That is harder to blend in than it sounds like it should be.
Yes initially it seems hard. Because when we read good stories, the backstory appears seamlessly, so we think story is just what happens in the present, not realizing that much of the story is under the surface, like a the bulk of an iceberg. Interestingly, though, it is what lies underneath that makes us love the characters and story.