Backstory, by definition, is the story in the back. Don’t constantly move it to the forefront of your main story, boring your readers to death. Let’s break down a few ways to let the bones of your backstory peek through the surface without disrupting the flow of your main story.
Backstory Tip #1: Start with the action.
Your first words, your first paragraph, your first chapter should be a racehorse bolting out of the gate. Everyone is excited to see what happens and we are all at the edge of our seats wondering, what happens next?
If you start in the past, you are likely to slow the pacing down. Start in the now, then go back. There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, you might toy with foreshadowing by sprinkling a few breadcrumbs about the past at the beginning of your story, a teaser for the reader, then jump to the main story.
However, if you do start in the past, be sure to make the incident an inciting moment–a moment of change, conflict, or radical inspiration for the main character. Also, be sure to get to the point immediately, don’t fool around with flowery details.
Extra tip: Try it both ways. Start with a flashback, then start without. Ask your trusty beta-readers to tell you which style works better.
Backstory Tip #2: Steep the tea slowly. Always know when to remove the tea leaves.
Writing with a backstory is like a good cup of tea. If you do it right, the tea tastes great. If you overdo it, the tea tastes too strong, too overpowering, or even worse, it’s too weak. Your story is the same. You need to find the correct balance of backstory and main story so that your flavors are just right.
Tabitha Lord and I had the pleasure of reading a new author’s opening pages. This person had a strong voice, elegant word choice, and a flair for setting the tone. However, we both found ourselves skimming along looking for the inciting event, the reason why we should bother reading any further. 800 words in, we finally found it. The first 799 words described a character traveling and ruminating about world events and the passing scenery. Once the traveler arrived at a dark and foreboding house with a mysterious second character within, the intrigue factor went up.
When we asked the writer about words 1-799, he told us that he was trying to establish the backstory. We told him that because we had no established connection to the traveler or the setting, we had little reason to care about the world events or the scenery. Once we knew whose head we occupied, we could begin to see things from his perspective and thus have empathy. To do this properly, you need to show, not tell. It always comes back to these sage words, doesn’t it?
Backstory Tip #3: Be a beguiling party host with your introductions.
You, the writer, the party host, need to introduce your guests with care and finesse. Let’s examine two examples of character/backstory introductions.
Hey readers! This is Izzy she’s a computer programmer by day and a struggling crime fighter by night! She had an alcoholic mother who used to come home with mysterious dents in the car all the time. Izzy used to clean up after her mother and she hated it. One time, there was even blood on the car. Gasp! Then one day, when she was a teenager, Izzy discovered that she could solve people’s problems by hacking into their lives and sending them messages in hopes that they would make better choices.
Izzy sat at her computer and typed the execution command. The message went out while she reopened another screen. A blurry black and white scene appeared featuring a street lamp and a stumbling young man about to open his driver’s side door. As she reached for her mug of tea, she watched the man pause then pull a phone from his back pocket. He read the screen, then looked around. He stood there, scratching the back of his neck until he slammed the car door shut and walked away from his vehicle. A smile spread across Izzy’s lips as she powered her computer down. Her screen darkened and Izzy saw her mother’s eyes staring back, crinkled with fatigue and age. Izzy slammed the laptop closed and gasped as hot tea spilled into her lap.
Remember, backstory adds color and life to your main story, but it takes skill and finesse to weave it into your tale!