By Shelley Widhalm
Shelley Widhalm is a freelance writer and editor and founder of Shell’s Ink Services in Loveland, Colo. She provides copy editing and developmental editing, as well as consultations on writing and editing. She has more than 20 years of experience in communications and holds a Master of Arts degree in English from Colorado State University. She can be reached at shellsinkservices.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more writing and editing tips, follow her blog at shellsinkservices.com/blog.
When I pick up a book, I usually have to finish what I start, but I recently had to dump a book like a bad relationship. Written in 2005 ( you know, AGES ago) the novel had so much backstory and memories trailing off of memories, I slogged through page eighty and finally couldn’t take any more.
Reading is like life. Carrying around emotional baggage can make being in the present moment challenging.
While I was battling this awful book, a family member with whom I have a complicated relationship experienced a life-threatening crisis. All of my anger at her, the details of my backstory, lifted. I felt freer as I was able to move through my personal plot without pulling all of that weight. None of the past seemed as important as having a person I loved in my life.
I realized what was weighing down the book I was struggling to read. Like those battle ropes, people sometimes use at the gym, the information dump felt like baggage not backstory.
As writers, that’s what we want for our readers, to love the trickle of backstory while they travel the main plot, so that it is intriguing, page-turning, and even suspenseful. In other words, backstory, which literally takes a story backward out of the present moment into the past, has to have a focused purpose.
Everything that came before the novel’s opening appears in snippets in the form of flashbacks, recollections, and descriptions of a character’s history, among other things. It can be details about the setting and plot that came before the present story. It can explain why the characters behave and act from traumas, encounters, and events of their past.
Fitting in Backstory
When beginning a novel, don’t start with large chunks of description, exposition, or a great deal of backstory or an extensive flashback. Check out the cautions of information dumps in Exposition Kills – The Writing Bug
Don’t reveal too much too soon, lowering the levels of suspense and tension. Don’t make it feel like an information dump, character sketch, or world-building encyclopedia (in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction). A world that’s explained or created needs just enough setting and history that feels like a real place abiding by its own rules. Aim for cinematic with the story playing out moment by moment, delving into the action with an inciting incident that jumpstarts the story.
This sets the story in motion while also establishing the scene and introducing characters. It keeps the pace at the right clip and gives the plot forward momentum, so pages are turned—the last thing writers want is scenes or the entire novel to drag and become dull. That’s when readers put down the book.
As the story moves into the plot arc, tension results when the mysteries aren’t spelled out for readers. They’ll want to guess the reasons for plot action and character motivation and put together the clues as they read along. The tension is created between what readers know and don’t know, pulling them into and through the story.
Wait Before Diving In
Diving too soon into backstory might mean you’re starting your plot in the wrong place. Maybe the before stuff needs to be the now stuff. Information dumps, particularly having to do with background are better drizzled rather than drenched throughout the story.
Backstory serves the main plot with hints as to why the present action is happening. Sometimes backstory can do some literary lifting by adding dimension to symbolism. Or it can serve emotional and psychological purpose offering insight to character’s reactions, triggers, and behaviors. Backstory can explain motivations, goals, desires, and needs.
Tips for Adding Back Story
- Figure out the back story necessary to the plot of the story and cut what the reader can figure out from dialog and action.
- Reveal character through action and dialog and less through description and narration.
- Have the main character engage in thought or inner dialog or have a flashback, a memory of the past triggered by something in the present.
- Weave in backstory into the narrative of the entire story, keeping the immersion of details and descriptions short.
- Use back story to provide a timeout or sense of mental relief for the reader in a scene with heavy action, quick pacing, and a great deal of tension.
When backstory spins out of control, told in long-winded dumps or veering off on tangents upon tangents, it can slacken the tension we’re trying to build and maintain. It creates long pauses in the storytelling. It’s the then, not the now.
The Key is Balance
Don’t give too much back story, which bores the reader, or too little, which leaves the reader confused. Instead, make it exciting, compelling, and concise where every word and image counts.
As for my own backstory, it’s been three weeks since my family member has been in the hospital, and now she’s in rehab. I remain free of that baggage and happy to try to help. As someone at the gym mentioned, you only get one. She’s right. And, even better, I’ve just got love left. And story.