Backstory is the personal history of your characters before we meet them in the novel. Although the reader won’t necessarily know every detail about the protagonists’ and antagonists’ background, you should know it. Or, at least, have an idea of it. Knowing why your characters are who they are are means you’ll know how they’ll react in a given situation. A big part of your plot is going to be how your characters respond to conflict, and for that, you’ll need to know their backstory.
Since I already covered why backstory is important in a previous post, today I’ll show you how to avoid common backstory pitfalls. Backstory is a lot like hot sauce. A little brightens and flavors your writing, but it’s easy to overdo it and render the whole unpalatable. Writer beware!
No Information Dumps
We’ve all heard about the importance of starting your book with a bang—right in the middle of the action. Once you’ve got the reader hooked into the story, though, it’s normal to feel like you need to explain what’s going on. Or maybe you feel the urge to help your reader understand just why the villain is so nasty. Many first-time novelists end up sharing a full psychological workup of their protagonist in Chapter 2. While backstory provides depth and helps with the internal logic of your plot, you want to parse it out bit by bit.
By all means, the reader wants to understand the characters. Readers love knowing more about the people they love or love to hate. However, the key word for writers, like lovers, should be to maintain a sense of mystery. Don’t tell all on the second date. Don’t tell all in the second chapter. Tease out backstory. Reveal only what you must when you must. Leave a little to the imagination. But most of all: weave it into the story. Don’t dump it all in one place.
Don’t Lose the Storyline
Remember, your readers are here for the main event. Whatever your story is about should remain front and center. Yes, learning why your characters respond as they do or how they came to the position they’re in now is both interesting and important. But, keep the main storyline front and center. That doesn’t mean never revisiting the past, of course. The past informs the present. This might mean that half of your novel takes place in the past. That’s fine as long as it ties back to whatever is happening right now.
I recently read a great literary novel called Conscience by Alice Mattison. It’s about a turning point in a middle-aged couple’s marriage, which has come to a head in the present day. However, their current problem is rooted in events that took place in the 1960s. In this case, backstory—what happened between these two in the ‘60s—intimately relates to the present. It’s okay that so much of the story takes place in the past. The key is that it’s not an information dump. Backstory is meted out bit by bit, and as a reader, I was as hungry to know what exactly went on back then. In this case, backstory was part of the main story.
Make it Relevant
For the purposes of planning and plotting, you will know a lot more about your characters than you need to share with the reader. You might even create elaborate and fascinating backstories for them. However, there’s no need to relay this information to the reader unless knowing a specific backstory tidbit will make a difference in your plot. Share the parts that illuminate motivation, relationship choices, or a penchant for horrible decision making. Keep notes and brainstorming to yourself.