Finessing the backstory

Ahh backstory. Who doesn’t love a big, steaming info dump? It’s so eaaaasy. It just flows onto the page. You’re not world-building, you’re people-building. Ooooh the power:

My protag did it this way because of thus and so. And so. And so. And sooooo….

It feels like you’re getting to know your characters – like they’re becoming three dimensional, like there’s suddenly an explanation for their actions that lets you weave your plot ever tighter. Doesn’t that make it important work? Doesn’t it?

Well, sure. It is important work. Backstory is the foundation on which your characters are built, and one of the engines that drives your plot forward.

But I’m learning it needs to be put into your manuscript with care. The kind of care you’d take with toxic waste. (You’ll need more than a pair of oven mitts.) Why? It’s a momentum-killer. A suspension-of-disbelief-breaker. A downer. It ejects your reader from the forward-moving story, and drops them into a purgatory of memories.

The damage it does is exponentially more painful the earlier it happens in the manuscript. Inserted later, your reader will forgive you for it – and be able to appreciate it for the dimension and poignancy it adds to what they’ve already read.

Here are some tools for dealing with backstory, in order of priority:
– If you can delay the insertion of backstory, do it.

– If you can’t delay the insertion of small amounts of backstory, then weave it in and out of your narrative like a thread, building to its own reveal, that gets the reader saying: “oh THAT’S why!” Tease your reader – don’t be cruel – but dropping a few hints never hurt anyone.

– If you can’t delay the insertion of larger amounts of backstory, then do it in a way that builds tension and conflict. Have your characters disagree about it, disbelieve it, or reject it altogether.

Following these rules will allow you to use backstory with finesse – and give your writing a professionalism it might previously have been missing. Okay who’s kidding who here – it will give MY writing a professionalism it might previously have been missing.



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