by C. Patrick Schulze
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Backstory is narrative that hints at or describes a character’s past. Often it presents itself in long-winded passages known as an info dump. It’s improper use conflicts with a number of the “rules” writers are supposed to follow including, providing too much information, too much information too soon, it shows rather than tells and worst of all, does not hold your reader’s interest.
Possibly the most common mistake writers make relative to backstory is to include too much too soon in their novels.
Another issue with backstory is writers think their readers need this information. Yet, more often than not, they require much less than you give them. The truth about backstory? Most of it is forgotten or ignored.
Everyone in the industry knows good writing is alive, it’s exciting and vibrant. Therefore, the most interesting writing is usually in the now, it’s immediate in its presentation. Backstory is not in the now by its very nature. That fact alone tells us to limit the backstory in our novels.
The secret to backstory is to introduce it in miniscule amounts and only as necessary. Let it loose when your reader needs to know about it and then drip it into your novel rather than pour it. Offering your reader pieces of information is much more effective than info dumps.
Think of backstory as morsels of your character’s prior life rather than meals of data about them. Offer your reader a taste of what they need to know and allow their imagination to fill in the rest of the picture.
Now for some tips as to how to infiltrate backstory into your novel.
Introduce backstory only after you’ve secured your reader’s interest in the story and in the character. Write about the action first.
Incorporate backstory when the specific character is the focus on your narrative. This, I think, is self-explanatory.
Convey backstory as soon as it’s needed, but only when its needed. That is, incorporate it just before the reader needs to know it. For example, if your character is a murderer, your reader might not need to know what draws him to this explosive mode of expression until after he kills his first victim, and maybe even later.
You may wish to use flashbacks to introduce large amounts of backstory. As your story moves along, you can write a single flashback chapter, then return to your storyline in the following chapter. Be cautious however, for flashbacks are tricky things to master and many readers, agents and editors don’t care for them.
You might introduce a dream to outline the needed backstory. Again, this is another tricky technique and is overused, so take care.
You can divulge family secrets to bring out backstory. Secrets are always exciting, so they have a better chance to keep from losing your reader’s interest.
Memories are another tool to consider. Often this comes out in dialogue or a character’s thoughts.
Regardless how you introduce your necessary backstory, keep in mind that it’s mystery that hooks your reader. Don’t tell them too much or they’ll have no reason to learn more about your characters.
Don’t be concerned if this technique takes a while to learn. It does for most writers. Just keep an eye open for excessive backstory then cut or disperse it wherever and whenever you can. You’ll do well with a little practice.
Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.
C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”