Backstory is background information about a character, place or thing that provides a greater picture for the reader. Unfortunately, writers may love backstory more than readers. However, since most characters experienced life before your novel opened, some backstory will almost always be required.
It’s important to remember that backstory slows down the momentum of the story, and too much can even bring it to a screeching halt. It’s a balancing act—too little and your readers may be confused, and too much may put them to sleep.
Some valid reasons to include backstory include:
- Explaining a character’s motivation
- Enhancing a character’s personality; what shaped them
- Making the character appear more real to the reader
- Adding a strong emotion to the narrative such as irony, regret and hope
- Educating the reader on important historical facts
There are a few different ways to convey backstory. Consider the following examples.
She grew up with an alcoholic mother and a truck-driver father who was rarely home, not even for the important events in her life.
Mary hid in the corner of the closet in her room when she heard the familiar sound of her father’s heavy work boots echo throughout the house as he walked through the kitchen. “What’s this?” he shouted. He stomped into the living room where her mother was passed out on the sofa, the empty gin bottle nestled in the crook of her arm. “Get up, you worthless piece of…” The sound of the bottle being slammed against the wall made Mary jump. “Can’t you even bake a goddamn birthday cake right?”
Dialogue with Another Character
“My mother drank a lot. In fact, she was usually passed out when I got home from school. My father was a truck driver, and when he was home, which wasn’t very often, he did a lot of yelling and complaining about what my mother had or hadn’t done while he was gone.”
She thought back to her eighth birthday. Her father had come home from one of his long road trips only to find her mother passed out on the couch and her ruined birthday cake sitting on the kitchen counter.
Some ways to begin backstory narrative include:
She remembered it clearly.
Six months earlier…
It all started when…
like the time when…
Don’t include backstory too soon in the book. It’s better to hold off before revealing too much. Let the reader get to know the character before explaining his past.
Keep it short.
If it’s not essential to the story, leave it out.
Create suspense by doling backstory out in bits and pieces, enticing the reader to want to know more.
Make another character need to know the backstory information in order for him to further his own motives.
Also remember that sometimes it’s important for the writer to know the backstory in order to create realistic narrative, even if he doesn’t reveal it to his readers.