Backstory is all those fun, murky or intriguing little details of what happened before your hero’s crappy day that you portray on page one.
It gives reasons and excuses for events that happen in the now of your story. But it is crucial to remember that backstory isn’t now. And if you dump too much of the past in one shot, it will take the reader out of the action of the story. And leach out all the emotional power out of your story action.
What’s its Purpose
- It’s what makes 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 is 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 hero and villain’s attitudes and motivations and drives
How to Reveal Backstory
You can slip it in so it seems incidental, as if 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 but know that they create different effects.
When backstory is dribbled in, revealed piecemeal, the reader learns a character, gradually developing an understanding of his motives. When laid out though exposition, the reader is clearly told what’s happened and perhaps how it affected character or elements of the setting such as how her father beat or abused her, or perhaps because she was forced to go to church. Who knows?
Direct explanation CAN pull the reader out of the fiction. Use it sparingly, because you don’t want the reader to feel he’s being lectured. Rather, you want them to get to know a character the same way we get to know people in the real world.
Show backstory through:
- sections of exposition, perhaps at the top of chapters and scenes
- character thought and reflection
- a prologue
Show backstory to:
- reveal character motivation
- slow the pace
- set up subsequent scenes
- provide meaning for events and character action and reaction
- add veracity to a character’s stands and personality
- provide distractions and murky motives and red herrings (yes, you can manipulate backstory for purposes other than straightforward revelation)
Remember the Paul Masson wine ads? We will serve no wine before its time? That should be your pledge regarding backstory: Never too early and always just enough.