Monday, August 6, 2012

Backstory - An Evil Necessity

"When do you show backstory and which character do you use to do it most effectively?" - Vicki 

First off some of you may be wondering why the heck backstory is so evil. It's deceptive really. Backstory can be fascinating and very important to the story. The problem is THE story that you are telling has to be the primary story. The more active and gripping that story is, the better! So when you get sucked into flashbacks and backstory to set up current situations, you are not actively involved in the story. In addition, you can fall into the trap of "telling" vs. "Showing". It's tough to show backstory.

SO, how do we do it? And who do we do it through? Well, the who really depends on the story and the perspective you're using. Obviously the easy way out is if your MC happens to be new to the world/situation herself and we the readers find out along with her. That's not always the case, however, and if it's used as a device, we can usually tell. 

You can't eliminate it all and surprise the reader with secrets about the MC because the reader will feel cheated. But you can't just throw everything out there either. 

Confused yet?

Glad I could help! LOL - JUST KIDDING! Seriously the best advice I've heard is to drip, drip, drip it in. Slow is best. A well placed comment here and there can do wonders. Go through and decide what info has to be revealed by what point in order for the reader to have what he needs. Then inject it. 

Showing? Interaction with the world can show A LOT. For example, THE HUNGER GAMES. Recall how the first page mentions A. They all share the same space. and B. The comical cat? That's brilliance. It shows not only Katniss' character, but how bad the food situation is where she lives. Backstory shown without throwing it in our face. 

One thing NOT to do? Please don't insert dialogue where people discuss things they should already know for the sake of the reader. That doesn't work. 

Back to who. I'm not sure that matters as much as how. In fact, in the example above, I'd say it's the world itself that shows us best. But again, each story and situation is different, so that's a tough question!

What have I missed? What advice can you add? Share so we can help Vicki and each other!


  1. Great tips on backstory. I agree that mostly dripping it in is best.

  2. The best advice I've heard is write the backstory, then act like it's a piece of glass. Drop it. Let it shatter. And add the slivers of backstory into your story. Works for me. :D

    1. That's such a great image - dropping a piece of glass and adding the slivers!

  3. I'm writing a first draft right now and I'm just letting the words flow. I've got all kinds of comments to myself through it like... (this is all telliing!) (backstory alert!) I don't want to stop the flow of the words right now, but I know it needs a lot of work in that 2nd draft! :)

  4. That is a BIG picture of me - yikes! Thanks for answering my question so quickly. I like the drip, drip method, and Stina's slivers of glass. I tend to have multiple paragraphs of backstory and then have to pare it waaaaayyyy down.

  5. I think backstory is tricky. Well, everything is tricky....but I usually find that I don't include enough! Crit partners want to know more. :)

  6. Adding back-story can definitely be challenging, but I agree, "dripping" it in is the best method. No one should rely on doing it through dialogue when all the other characters are already in-the-know, unless you want that same dialogue to come across as incredibly fake and clunky....

  7. My current WIP could easily contain A LOT of backstory, and yes, it's challenging to get it in. While I've been "dripping" it in here and there as my protag discovers key items, there is a point in which she meets an important secondary character who is in a position to tell her about her father's life (my protag's father died 20 years prior). While this secondary character doesn't tell the protag everything under the sun, she does provide historical details about halfway through the story.

    So far my beta readers love it. Let's see what my sharp-eyed crit partner thinks when she gets to it. ;)

    As always Lisa, another thought-provoking post from you! Thank you! :)

  8. Great tips, Lisa. I love, love, love it when I learn tiny bits of backstory along the way. It keeps me curious.

  9. Love the drip by drip. Hate the dump. Worry a lot about backstory when I'm writing. Guess this was the perfect post for me to read. Thanks.

  10. Interesting that in some other cases I can think of, it's also the world itself that shows it best, rather than a character. Though you can use almost any character or setting to spark a memory in your main character's head that can reveal a "drip" of backstory.

  11. The drip, drip, drip of information is perfect. Information dumps are so obvious and awkward. Backstory is tricky, but when it works, it's amazing.

  12. Wow! This is a GREAT way to distinguish what makes effective backstory and what kills it! Thanks, Vicki! I've never known how to put it in words. The main story has to be the main story. It's like good cooking. Backstory is the seasoning. :o) <3

  13. I think you've nailed it - this is pretty much it. :) Great post, and great advice!

  14. I like the way you said to drip, drip, drip, drip it in. That makes sense to me and in the books I like that is how the author weaves in the back story. Great post!

  15. One thing where I think keeping secrets from your readers can work is when writing traumatic backstories. Many traumatized people don't like to talk or think much about the trauma. So it can be quite powerful to say absolutely nothing about the trauma at first, or else just a vague statement (eg 'I didn't get along well with my parents') and proceed to show the trauma in their reactions to things, and then make them revealing the trauma be a dramatic scene. For example, the book The Thread That Binds the Bones reveals early on that the protagonist is a) deeply unhappy, b) scared of her mother and c) usually does not feel pain; but it's only fairly far in the story that it's made clear that these three traits are caused by physical abuse. Even then, they don't outright say so - the character's reactions just eventually leave no other explanation.

    I guess what I would say about backstory is to make sure you match the character to their backstory, and if you do a good job of this, you can use character-building in current time to hint at the backstory. I've seen too many characters who act nothing like how a person with their backstory would act (for example, Harry Potter should have attachment disorder, given his backstory, but he acts like a typical teen).