Struggling with backstory?

One of the hardest parts of writing for me is deciding what to do with character backstory. What do the readers really need to know? Am I dumping in too much? Did I give them enough? I'm in the process of working up the basics for a new cozy mystery series that I'm co-authoring with my daughter. We're at the point where we need to fluff out the characters we've come up with and determining backstory. So I decided this would be a good time to share one of the articles from my Be Romantic blog, which is focused only on Writing Tips.


Defining Backstory: Backstory is a device for writers to reveal to the readers some of the character’s history or history underlying the situation for the storyline. It is also known as back-story or background. It explains how the character became who he is and why he thinks or acts in a certain way. Characters, like real people, are influenced by what happens in their lives: their family life, friends, enemies, era grew up in, education, experiences, tragedies, phobias, and more.

Purposes of Backstory:
• To reveal important information about the main characters
• To depict a story world
• To give depth to characters and understand who they are, why they think or act in certain ways
• To supports the character’s motivation
• To reveals the character’s fears
• To explain the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist

Problems with Backstory:
• The author has a wealth of knowledge about the character’s background and struggles with wanting to immediately reveal all of it to the reader, over-kill through knowledge dumping.
• Too little backstory can make a story appear to thin, with no “meat” to the characters.
• Too much backstory can bog a story’s progress down.
• Giving the reader more backstory than they need to know and confusing them.

Ways to Reveal Backstory:
• Flashbacks: Interjecting a scene from the past by using inner dialogue.
• Dialogue: Using a conversation, especially an argument, to reveal backstory and conflict.
• Narration: The author using an omniscient point of view to reveal backstory; best used in plays.
• Recollection: Using a character’s memory of something, introspection, to reveal backstory.
• Inner Dialogue: Providing backstory in a character’s thoughts.

Tips for Using Backstory:
• Insert backstory in small pieces that don’t slow the forward movement down.
• Decide what you are trying to do within a scene and insert only what backstory might be necessary for the reader to know in that particular moment.
• Avoid using author narration as it takes the reader away from the story.
• Keep flashbacks to a minimum and use only to reveal a specific character or event that is necessary for the reader to know.
• Reveal tidbits of background throughout the story’s action.
• Reveal details to evoke specific images and feelings that the reader needs to “see” at that time.

© 2010 Starla Kaye


Joan Vincent said...

Starla, you talent for zeroing in on the important facets of a topic and writing an erudite explanation is awesome. It is a wonderful primer as well as a thorough review for those of us who've written a book or two. Thank you for sharing this article here.

Starla Kaye said...

Joan, all of these tips are easier said than followed. As the writer with all of this knowledge of backstory for my characters, I still struggle to hold back from just dumping it all up front. It would be such a relief...and so overwhelming for the reader.

Rox Delaney said...

I was thinking about this yesterday. There are several things to take into account when determining how much backstory goes into a, well, a story.

Length of story make a difference. For instance, a short story would probably only briefly touch on the backstory, while a 90,000 word novel would contain more.

Editorial differences might come into play. I thought of this because my editor nixed what she called "exposition" in one spot. I had to run to the dictionary to be sure of that one! (From (in a play, novel, etc.) dialogue, description, etc., that gives the audience or reader the background of the characters and the present situation.) While, on the other hand, I've had reviewers who said there wasn't enough. I guess you just can't please everybody!

A good give-away would be when an editor (or critique partner) keeps asking "why." Usually the "why" goes back to the backstory.

But it's definitely a balancing act, no matter what.

Good stuff, Starla!

Reese Mobley said...

Great refresher course. It's a fine line between telling too much and not enough. Usually new writers lean toward overkill because we want to make sure we get our story out there and make sense.

snwriter52 said...

Great detail, thanks for sharing.

Deborah said...

Awesome tips as usual, Starla. I always learn so much from you and my writing improves when I use it! have drilled that "why" question into our brains. When fixing problems with my critique partners almost always says, "Roxann would tell us to ask why." Thanks, ladies.