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When To Bring Backstory Out of the Shadows

March 30, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 15, 2013

Today’s topic is backstory, all those fun or murky or intriguing little details of the earlier lives of your characters. And of the setting where you’ve placed your story. And of the time of your story. All the events that happened before that very first glimpse of your fictional world or the perfect murder or the recitation of the details of your protagonist’s crappy day that you portray on page one of your novel.

Backstory is the accumulation, the totality, of the earlier events and histories of those people and things and places that make up your story world.

Backstory is the story before the story. It’s the events that transpire before the story events you’ve chosen to highlight and reveal and invite the reader into.

What’s in backstory are causes for the events of the story you put on the page. Backstory covers motive and history and the roots of character personality and motivation.

Backstory gives reasons and excuses for events that happen in the now of your story. But backstory isn’t that now. And if you dump too much of the past in at one shot, it slows the unfolding of the current story, may even deaden the impact of current action and event. It leaches the emotional power out of the story action that’s unfolding on the page in the story’s present.

Backstory is part of the setup for plot and characters; it is not a substitute for unfolding events.

As a woman might have to pull her hair up before she take a sweat-inducing exercise class, so might your character have to deal with something from her past before addressing something in the present. The putting up of the hair is not the important element; the exercise class is. Same with backstory and story events. The element of the backstory that you share is not the main event; it’s only the preparation for it. It needs very little attention, only enough to reveal what it is and what it accomplished in order to ready the character for the real action to come.

Backstory is the failing grade from a middle school math class that compelled your protagonist to work so hard at school that he had no time for friends and outside activities, a practice that extends to his lifestyle as an adult.

It’s the uninvolved father who turned your female antagonist against men over a certain age so that she only seeks lovers in their twenties. Even though at story opening she’s celebrating her fortieth birthday.

It’s the holocaust or world war or alien invasion that created the need for martial law that led to the fascist government that rules the world in your dystopian sci-fi series.

Backstory is everything that happened in your story world and to your characters prior to the point you open that world to readers. It’s the antecedents. It’s part of the cause for which you are showing the effect. It’s the setup of your story.

It’s what has made your opening page possible. Inevitable. Engaging.

It’s the history of both your story world and your characters. It’s the events and people who have shaped characters and story setting.

It’s not your unfolding story but it is everything that makes that story possible and necessary and inescapable.

Backstory accounts for the why of the story events and actions that occur at the top of your story. It’s the explanation for your protagonist’s and antagonist’s attitudes and motivations and drives.

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Backstory can and should be revealed in a variety of ways. You can slip it in so it seems incidental, as if revealed only because you were revealing something else, or you could explain it plainly so there’s no doubt you’re writing a paragraph of backstory.

Use both methods, knowing they create different effects.

When backstory is dribbled in, revealed piecemeal, the reader learns a character, gradually develops an understanding of his motives. When backstory is laid out though exposition, the reader is clearly told what’s happened and perhaps how it affected character or elements of the setting (government policies, social mores, religious practices and so on).

There is a time for both styles of revelation, but direct explanation can pull the reader out of the fiction. Use it sparingly, knowing that any such explanations can have a reader feeling he’s being taught a lesson rather than getting to know a character the same way we get to know people in the 3-dimensional world.

But don’t think you can’t ever express backstory through direct revelation. Sometimes that’s the quickest way to lay out a revelation. And sometimes that’s more important than spending three pages on a min-scene that would eventually reveal the same information.

Consider such explanations for use in narrative summary or when you introduce a new scene. Or even when a character has a moment of clear reflection and comes to some glaring conclusion about his own motives.

Straight revelation can work. But you’ve got to control its flow and the effects.

The introduction of backstory, except in prologue, should never come before current story elements. No opening chapter one with a flashback—open with the now, get the reader involved in it first, and then reveal essential or noteworthy elements from prior days or years or eras. Do you remember the Paul Masson wine ads? We will serve no wine before its time? Let that be your pledge regarding backstory: Never too early and always just enough.

The quick details—

Show backstory

through sections of exposition, perhaps at the top of chapters and scenes

through dialogue

through character thought and reflection

through flashbacks

through a prologue

to reveal character motivation

to slow the pace

to set up subsequent scenes

to provide meaning for events and character action and reaction

to add veracity to a character’s stands and personality

to provide distractions and murky motives and red herrings (yes, you can manipulate backstory for purposes other than straightforward revelation)

An event or action or word of dialogue or setting prop may stir a character into thoughts about a past event—make sure that characters have a reason to suddenly remember and dwell on a moment or past event rife with deep meaning. That is, people don’t usually stop in the middle of a crosswalk because they’re overwhelmed with the memory of a car crash from 20 years earlier. Give the character a prompt for diving into memories or thoughts of the past.

And use the memory to create an effect on the present. Show events from the past only as they make an impact on the current story.

Backstory is best digested in small doses. Take care to not pile up revelations and merely pour them out in boring clumps via info dumps. And remember to include backstory before it’s needed, otherwise it reads as coincidence.

Let backstory influence character decisions and attitudes and actions. Use it to give a character’s actions consistency.

Keep in mind that you, the writer, need to know much more about character history and earlier events than readers ever need to know. Let your knowledge color, flavor, the story. Let backstory bring shadings to a character. Let it fill in details about place and time and the cultural expectations of the people groups in your tale.

Use backstory for depth, so characters have a history, a full life, before the moments of your current story.

Use backstory to make characters realistic, as if they’d been in motion all along and you merely captured them in a moment of time. Use backstory to make readers believe that just as characters were real, involved in their own lives before page one of a book, that they’ll continue with their lives after this episode of their lives is complete and the reader closes the book.

Reveal only the backstory that’s important for the story you’re writing. That is, some events of a character’s backstory might work for a different tale, one you could write or might write. But include in your current story only what you know of a character that has importance for the current story events or to set up subsequent stories for that character.

Don’t tell every secret of your characters’ lives, just those relevant for this story. Allow your characters some privacy.

Don’t spill all about character history or setting events, but do share those moments and earlier events that directly lead to your story’s action and character motivation.

Reveal causes for a character’s stand on an issue or the reasons he is who is he or the reasons he must act on an issue.

Don’t give readers more than they need; keep them curious, at least a little bit. Provide answers, yes. But don’t necessarily connect all the dots. Be clear about events that occurred before your story begins, then reveal how those events formed your character’s personality or dreams or goals as he moves through the events in your story.

Flavor the now of story with bits from the past, but don’t allow the past to take over the now.

When you’re tempted to tell all, remind yourself you’re writing fiction, not a treatise on the effects of World War II on fictional characters. Know a lot; learn to keep secrets.

And learn when to uncover secrets for startling effect.

Use backstory, but make sure it works in the background without drowning out current story events.

Write stories with depth.

Write characters with pasts and futures.

Put backstory to work for your fiction.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Definitions

6 Responses to “When To Bring Backstory Out of the Shadows”

  1. nelle says:

    Well prepared and presented post. With a character comes all the history unseen, and it can be mined for ways to spark up current events.

  2. Nelle, backstory certainly can create sparks. And set up all sorts of juicy events and emotions.

  3. Darien says:

    Thanks for the article, I especially enjoyed the part about back stories and secrets. My MC is a bit “unreliable” as a narrator, and I try to use back story to let the reader see what’s between the lines but is not being overtly stated. I also try to use description and body language to reveal things my MC is not willing to admit.

    Right now I’m working to weave the BS in, and not stop the action. My second chapter is all BS, but I feel it’s needed then because the events described not only help define my MC’s world and personality, but are also referred to in conversation from that point on. Do you think a whole chapter so soon will take people out of the story?

    Thanks again for all the tips you give!

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  1. […] How To: When To Bring Backstory Out of the Shadows, by Beth Hill – “Backstory is the story before the story. It’s the events that […]

  2. […] necessary to include in any one book when you’re working on a series. I addressed the basics of back story in another article, but we can always take another look and delve into some […]