When and how to include backstory (without boring readers)

When and how to include backstory (without boring readers)

I feel like I’ve discussed this ad nauseum, but it was probably tucked into some broader concepts and it’s a HUGE issue. So I wanted to share a very relevant, crucial bit of advice that might make everything easier.

What’s backstory? Backstory is usually the deeper, poignant scenes that reveal character motivations. A lot of authors screw up by putting it early, at the beginning of the book, before anything has happened, to let readers know who the characters are and why they’re acting that way.

Don’t do that, because…

  1. backstory = resolved conflict. That means, it’s old news that might be emotional but isn’t pressing. Your characters need to have real, current issues, and will probably actually AVOID old memories, not sit around and think through them.
  2. backstory = inactive scene. You have one, current, unfolding point of action that happens in real-time. This is what’s happening; this is the real, active scene. A backstory could be revealed in the action, for example, a deep conversation or personal share. But it’s usually just a character reminiscing for no reason, or spilling his deep secrets to total strangers on the first date. OR it’s just the narrator, waxing lyrical while his characters are frozen in real time.

Each time you lay out a backstory or flashback or even reference, you’re interrupting the active scene. Sometimes, that’s OK. But generally, you want to transition into a backstory after the current events being so stressful and overwhelming, that your characters begin to soften and crack.

It’s important to explain WHAT pretty early. Who are these characters, what are they doing, what do they want, what do they look like, what is opposing them. But keep it moving in the present moment – and I don’t mean, “present tense.” You can write an active scene in past tense:

“She strode to the window in her red dress, whipping aside the curtains and feeling the slight burn of sunlight on her pale arms. It reminded her of another kind of burn, just inside her wrist… years before.”

This is a *hint* at a flashback, but it would be less powerful to just give it away. The more precious or traumatic the memory, the deeper its emotional influence, you make it stronger by refusing to divulge it.

Hint, and interrupt. Plant that seed.

If it’s only an informational bit of explanation, turn it into a conversation or active reference, or squeeze it in fast. If it’s a real, impactful, character-motivating backflash, leave it until it really matters:

At the final point of change, when the character is failed and broken, and needs to become something new/stronger/better. This is the point where they *should* give up, but this time, they don’t – they make a new choice. This choice is the point of the whole story, and needs to be properly motivated, so these impactful backstory reveals should happen in the middle of the final battle scene (near the conclusion) of the book.

Here’s the backstory rule:

Establish existing conflict and tension, and develop the characters in action, before getting into the deeper backstory, which are for sympathy/explanation.

Got it? Get the story moving, with active, real unresolved conflict that reveals characters – stick with a shallow depiction of appearance/personality. We don’t care about them yet, but we need to picture them. Once interesting things are happening and we begin caring (because you’ve made them sympathetic), just before the big, dangerous interactions, fights or battles, that’s when you allow for a vulnerable share or flashback (although, rather than just jumping in time, these can usually be done in the active scene, either through a private chat or a short period of self-reflection).

If possible, break off the flashback, so it becomes a hint, rather than a competed story. You create intrigue by hooking interest and not satisfying it. Tell the first half, without the details. In my example above… she felt a burn on her arm like a burn from long ago; then her fiance bursts in or whatever, and it’s her wedding day or her brother’s. Later in the story, the burn could be a lover’s kiss or the bite of a cigarette from an abusive uncle. Maybe both.

What these to learn more about handling backstory