Writers in the Storm

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January 5, 2015

7 Tips for Balancing Backstory

Shannon Donnelly

photo credit: winnifredxoxo via photopin cc

photo credit: winnifredxoxo via photopin cc

Backstory—the background needed to enrich a story—is one of those things that can drive any writer nuts. How much is too much? When do you reveal more? When do you hold back? Too much backstory can sink a story—because you’re not moving the story forward. You’re giving background, and while that can be interesting, readers really want the story to keep moving. Too little backstory and you run the risk that character motivations may not make sense.

There are no right answers about how to handle backstory, but there are some tips to help you find a better balance between stopping the story dead for the background and having so little background that the reader is lost.

Questions to Ask Yourself—

1. Does the reader really need to know this? This is the first thing to ask. Does the reader really need to know the heroine’s puppy was stolen when she was six? Is this just a cool background fact, or is it a vital plot point? (As in the puppy comes back in the next chapter and he’s magical now.) This is a tough question to answer because you usually want to think, “Of course the reader has to know this.” Be brutally honest with yourself—do you just want to put this information in because a) you think you need it or b) you think it’s cool or c) you read another book that had this kind of background. Don’t let yourself be tricked by either bad structure in another book or the ability another writer has to make backstory work brilliantly. And when in doubt save the backstory for later.

2. Does the reader really need to know this now? The now is an important part of backstory. Sometimes you need to set the scene or the world for the reader. This is very important when dealing with history or alternate realties. The reader may need to know how magic works in your fictional world. Or the reader may need to know the importance of manners in another age. These may be vital to making the very premise of your story work—and so the reader needs that information right away. But…be careful with this. You may again overload the front of the book with too much. Again, when in doubt save the backstory for later.

3. Can you weave in the backstory with a just sentence or two? Careful editing is your friends. Go ahead and write those three pages of backstory. Go wild with it. Have fun. Then cut it out and save it and use just a sentence here or there. Think of backstory as colorful threads that you want to gleam here and there—too much color in one spot will blind, but a thread showing on this page and another on the next gives dimension to the story. And again…save those big chunks for backstory for later.

4. How long can you leave the reader waiting? This is a great device that requires foreshadowing. If you HINT at your protagonist having some history or issues from the past, the reader is going to start wanting to know more. Drop enough hints, set the trail with enough mystery, and the reader will then wade through any amount of backstory because now the reader is dying to know more. A backstory dump won’t work if the reader isn’t first set up to want this—in other words, if you just put in the backstory without any foreshadowing, the reader is going to wonder if the story was somehow derailed. The good news is you can weave this stuff in after your first draft is done.

5. Can you add the backstory with something else going on? Readers want conflict—they want the story to keep moving forward. Look at some of your backstory and see if you can have it come out at the worst time possible for your character. Instead of finding out in chapter one that your hero hates heights, have him find out in chapter ten when he’s standing on the edge of a cliff and it’s jump or die. If your heroine has some issues with her mother, maybe they can come out every time the two of them are on the phone and the sniping starts over long dead family issues that neither of them can resolve. Look to add dimension to every scene—every bit of conflict—by bringing in the character’s past to that scene. These again are places for those colorful threads of backstory. The caution here is don’t overdo this…and do foreshadow with hints (and hints means hints—trust your readers and do not beat them over the head with the same information over and over again because you worry ‘they might not get it’).

6. Is less more, or is more more? When you’re in the middle of any story and writing madly away it’s very easy to lose all perspective. Get the book—the story—done. Set it aside for a couple of weeks. Then come back with fresh eyes. Now you’ll be able to look at it to see if you need to add a touch more backstory—or if you need to cut back on the backstory. Is the scene dragging—pull out some of that backstory. Is the scene a little confusing—ah, time to add a touch more backstory.

7. Can you use dialogue to add backstory? This can be a great device—or a deadly one. Sometimes you need characters to add to the backstory—but this must be done in character and true to the character’s voice. The last thing you want is a character talking in plot exposition—that’s deadly. Nothing flattens dialogue more than making it all about exposition—either with backstory to setup the plot or backstory to provide motivation. So…make it about more. Layer in emotion to that dialogue. If you have two sisters who are arguing about something that happened between them ten years ago, let them use the kind of shorthand siblings would use—in other words, Theresa wouldn’t tell her sister, “Remember when you stole my beau from me and asked him to the dance.” That’s too “on the nose.” It’s using dialogue to add backstory but in such a way that the reader can’t believe it. So you change it up. Maybe Theresa says, “I remember what happened at the last dance—do you think I’m going to ever let you forget what you did!” Now the reader is also wondering what happened and wants to hear more—and the characters can get into it between each other with a slow reveal of the story (and a lot of tearing at each other). But here’s another place to go back to the earlier questions of does the reader really need this information—and does the reader need this now?

Above all, when in doubt save the backstory for later. You may find yourself pushing it off and pushing it off and pushing it right out of the story. It’s quite possible you may need to write three chapters of backstory because you (as the author) needed to write those scenes and know that information. It’s nothing the reader needs—and should be cut because it stops the story from starting (or slows it way, way down).

And if you really can’t decide about the backstory, find a couple of readers who can read a solid draft of the book and tell you places where the story slowed down too much—or where it was confusing. Those are the places to cut or to add backstory. And remember…backstory is when the story is now going back, not forward. Treat it as such and keep your stories moving forward as much as you can!

About Shannon
ShannonDonnellyShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written." She is also the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire. She is currently working on her next Regency romance, Lady Chance.

30 comments on “7 Tips for Balancing Backstory”

  1. Thank you Shannon,
    Usually one just gets told not to info dump or to rather scatter backstory throughout the story. But nobody has put is as clearly as you did. At last an article with real useful advice.
    Kind regards,
    Michelle Lynn

    1. Michelle, As with everything to do with writing, there really are no rules. Some stories really do need more backstory--and some don't. And it's so hard to balance this or find what's right for the story. I have found you can do a lot more backstory if you make it really, really interesting and put it in at the right time.

  2. Shannon, as someone who writes emotional family mysteries, I'm constantly wrestling with how to incorporate just enough back story in the right places to add depth to the characters without making the book a slog of unnecessary details. Thanks for this useful post!

    1. Holly--you're so right. With emotional family stories you do have to give the reader enough to make the reader care about the characters.

  3. This becomes especially difficult when writing series or connected books. How much to reveal about characters or plot issues that were introduced in previous books. I read book 2 by a well-known, best-selling author, but there was so much about book 1 in it that I had no desire to go back and read a book where I already knew everything that happened. Or, in another author's series book, she introduced at least a dozen characters, explained their relationships, until my head spun and I stopped reading. Back story needs to be just enough so a returning reader gets an 'insider' moment, while the new reader isn't confused or feeling left out.

    1. Terry - Series are tricky that way. You almost have to think about the other books as backstory, too. And...make it very, very interesting (and entertaining).

  4. Thanks for the information. I try to have a good backstory for my character that slowly comes out in the story, but sometimes that can be hard to do. I constantly battle too much information that is not needed and sometimes requires a pause to ask some of the questions you posted above.

    1. Jeffrey, sometimes you want to hold back on those secrets. Simon Green does a great job of this in his Nightside series. He keeps you waiting and wanting more.

  5. Great approach, Shannon. Especially helpful as I jump into another round of revisions.

  6. Great questions to how much "backstory spice" to add throughout the story. Thanks, Shannon. You continue to be a wonderful teacher!

  7. Backstory is a difficult part of the craft, yet you broke it down and made it understandable. Thank you so much Shannon! 🙂

  8. I feel a bit better about how I did my backstory now, but on the series issue - I have sevreal places which are foreshadowing for future books. I want to keep them in because, for example, I don't want readers five books later to say that I suddenly pulled a rabbit out of a hat to include this new character - I want it to be obvious she was planned from the beginning. I had a critique, however, which told me that i needed to explain everything in the book, not leaving any questions. ???

    1. Laura. There are no rules. You do NOT have to answer all questions--particularly not in a series. Even in a stand alone book you can still leave subplots with questions--it's fun in a way to let the reader imagine endings. What you want to look at is does this critique really mean the ending you have is not satisfying enough? She may be asking you to not leave questions, but what she may really mean is that she wants more emotional resolution to the main plot line. Look at this from the angle of there is something to fix, but not necessarily with wrapping up everything.

      1. Thanks! That could be an issue - the original rough draft had two more sections after this, but I cut them and put them into a novella and short story on the advice of a different critique. Unfortunately, the original ending, which is now the short story ending, was probably more satisfying. Hmm.

  9. Great article. I think handling backstory is one of the hardest things to do in storytelling, because as you said, we always think the reader need to know these facts, of course. In fact, mostly 'we' as writers need to, not the reader.

    I've been a member of an online workshop for nearly eight years and I've noticed an alarmingly high number of people begin their story and after few paragraphs ( and I really mean FEW paragraphs) they slam a flashback down. And when I point out that I don’t really care for the flashback, because I don’t even know who the MC is, they tell me there’s no other way to do it, because that’s vital info.

    I’ve also seen backstory-leaden dialogue used so very often, normally because the author thinks that I if it’s dialogue it isn’t info-dump.

    1. Yeah, every writer thinks the backstory is vital--it hardly ever is. I always tell folks to treat flashbacks like high explosives. Handle them gently--and make the reader really, really, really, really want them. A good exercise is just to see how long you can postpone giving that "vital" information. Sometimes you end up postponing it right out of the book.

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