Writers in the Storm

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June 17, 2016

How To Deliver Critical Backstory Using The Setting

Angela Ackerman

Ah, backstory. According to many, this is the BIG BAD WORD in fiction. How many times have you heard someone say, “Backstory is bad, strip it from the scene!” or, “Backstory slows the pace, bogs down the action, and will only bore the reader.” Well, if you hang out at the same online writerly spaces as I do, probably you hear this said quite often.

But here’s the thing…Backstory is not the F Word.

In fact, it’s pretty dang important.

Part of the problem with blanket statements is that they can do a lot of damage. So, let’s discuss, and hopefully change a few minds about this sacred cow advice in the process.

Hidden Backstory vs. Visible Backstory

There are two types of backstory: hidden backstory, which is for you the author, and visible backstory, which is for the reader. Both are important, and both are absolutely necessary to build a successful novel.

Hidden backstory is all the great stuff authors need to understand about their characters, especially the hero or heroine. Among other things, this might be knowing the character’s passions and beliefs, how a skill or talent came about, who influenced them in good ways and bad throughout their life, the fears they grapple with, and the source of their deepest emotional wounds.

Knowing our characters intimately means we are able to write them authentically: every action, decision, and choice will line up with who they are deep down. But if we don’t take the time to chart our character’s backstory, we won’t know what makes them tick or why they do the things they do. Chances are, we’ll end up with a one-dimensional character that won’t hold the reader’s attention beyond a few pages.

Visible backstory is the hidden backstory the author intentionally shares with readers so that they better understand the character’s motivation. In other words, this type of backstory supplies context when it is needed.

For example, you could read about a character who avoids everything red: tomatoes, pomegranates, holiday sweaters—he even grows ill at the sight of blood. If the author shows him refusing to buy a couch because it is red or even throwing away a gift basket of beautiful red apples, it stands out as odd, unreasonable, and may even put readers off because they don’t get it. However, with a subtly added touch of backstory, suddenly there is context for this behavior:

Lucas traded his paint roller for a blue-smudged cloth, wiped his hands, and then pressed his knuckles into his hips to stretch. His back resisted the move to straighten, but stiffness couldn’t steal his grin. This was the third coat and hopefully the last, but it was worth doing. To give both himself and the house a fresh start, he needed to do this with his own hands. And now, midday light streamed through the window and glimmered off the blue paint, an expansive wall stretching across the room like his own private sky.

His gaze found a thin slash of old crimson paint at the top of the wall, and his lips flat-lined. Why the previous owners would choose such a hue, he couldn’t fathom, but he wouldn’t live in this house until all of it was covered. Twenty years had gone by, but the sight of that shade never failed to put him back in Gramma Jean’s pantry, with the damp rot and moldering fruit and rats scrabbling behind red-lacquered walls. Lucas could not look at the color without remembering the screams wrenching from his throat and the pain of his tiny fingers clawing at the door until they bled. Gramma Jean might have been long dead, but the memory of what she’d done, over and over, remained.

The doorbell chimed, and Lucas jolted his gaze from the red strip. Some time on a ladder with a small brush and it would be as if the red never was. If only the past could be so easily erased. He swallowed down the bitterness coating his mouth and threw on his best “friendly new neighbor” smile on his way to the door.

Now, with the addition of backstory, we see Lucas’ behavior for what it is: echoes of fear from a past trauma. Not only does this give readers clarity regarding his actions, it pulls them in through this personal doorway to an old wound that still pains him.

The reason why backstory is so frequently demonized is that it’s easy to be heavy-handed when delivering it. When showing an important moment from a character’s past sometimes we get so caught up in painting the picture for readers that we try and deliver a Rembrandt. The result is a painfully lengthy flashback, or the dreaded info dump, each the literary equivalent of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

No Dumping

With backstory, the trick is to only show what is necessary to supply context--no more, and no less. Tie it to the current scene, and to the emotions at play, so that it is seamlessly delivered along with the action. Choose powerful details to convey what you need to. Like the thin strip of red paint in the example above, think about what symbols in the setting can be used to create a doorway to the past. Make each word earn the right to be included. In this way, we can add depth and meaning without sacrificing the pace.

For a deeper look at how to using the setting to deliver backstory successfully, please reference The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces.

Do you have thoughts or questions about backstory? How do you slide it into your stories?

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About Angela

Angela AckermanAngela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

53 comments on “How To Deliver Critical Backstory Using The Setting”

  1. Great post, Angela. I like using James Scott Bell's idea of 'backflashes' - a quick hit of the past, in the present. Most often, that's all you need. Readers are MUCH smarter than we give them credit for!

    1. Dialogue can work well as long as it fits with the action and never feels "as you know." Dialogue always has to further the story, and never go on too long, but it can be very good for small snatches of backstory that enhance the story line & current action.

  2. This is terrific, Angela. I love the "hidden" versus "visible" backstory concept.

    1. Me too. And a lot of that Hidden backstory comes out via show don't tell. Who our characetrs are is based on their past, and the people and influential moments that made them that way, good and bad. So a snippet of backstory is really all that is needed to add depth to a character trait, or a fear, a habit, etc. Just like the above, it provides that touch f context that makes everything line up for the reader.

  3. This really helped me. I'm an info-dumper 😛 Now I think I can see how to provide essential backstory without it being a deluge.

  4. I've been reading and learning so much about settings and descriptions this last week, it must be some kind of sign. Thanks, Angela.

    1. haha, that's probably partially our fault--Becca and I have been posting and guest posting frequently about this topic lately!

  5. Wonderful post, Angela! Using the hidden vs. visible is so helpful. Thanks!

    1. Glad this helps. I love that iceberg photo you see online sometimes as it is so illustrative in back story's case. Most of the iceberg is hidden, but it is still there and very much a force...just ask the Titanic.

  6. I have a question. There are times when the backstory is more complicated, maybe involving multiple events, or characters, or spanning a long period of time. When that story is critical to the "now" story, it may be necessary to show more than a "backsplash." I have seen it done well by structuring the novel to alternate between the "now" story and the "then" story. (The Language of Flowers comes to mind.) I have also seen it done with significant flashbacks. Do you have any advice on how to judge which is the best method?

    1. Great question, and it doesn't have an easy answer, because it all depends on the story, and why the past event or story line is critical to the one in the present. I have definitely seen two parallel timelines work, usually where a chapter takes place in the past and one takes place in the present, and they follow a pattern, just as a story with two main protagonists might. This working or not will hinge on the WHY: what event or epiphany (climatic moment) are both POV characters/timelines heading towards, and how do they connect? This dual moment, where the past event build up has to have direct bearing on the present timeline and what is to unfold in the present climatic event.

      Flashbacks can be used quite well and are often easier to wield than a parallel timeline story. The key is to make sure your flashbacks are absolutely necessary--that without this flashback, the scene is diminished and readers will not understand a critical part of the story. A great example is when Peeta's name is read in the Hunger Games. Katniss, who feels very emotionally removed to the reader, has a very visceral reaction to Peeta's name being called. Readers absolutely need to know why--after all, Katniss has just saved her sister's life and nothing else should matter, but suddenly something does: the boy with the bread.

      Collins shows this moment in sequenced flashbacks, so readers can see that Peeta saved Katniss' life in the past through an act of kindness: a gift of bread that he was beaten for giving. This flashback sets up the stakes for Katniss, and is at the heart of her dilemma: how can she win and return to the role of family protector when it means Peeta must die, a boy who she owes her life to?

      If you like, I have a pinterest board that is dedicated to Backstory and Flashbacks: https://www.pinterest.com/onestop4writers/help-with-backstory-flashbacks/

      Lots of good reading here, and a flashback tip sheet I created for One Stop For Writers. 🙂

  7. I'll add my thanks for this explanation, Angela. The hidden vs. visible is an easily understood illustration. When I'm reading a book, the two things that make me skim are too much backstory and too much description. In both instances, just a dash of either is enough to keep a reader interested.

    1. Yes, when it comes to backstory and description, quality is king. Every detail we put into our story to either show, not tell or provide context MUST do double or triple duty. No one has time for pretty, empty words. Every detail should show emotion, show characterization, clarify motivation, show the stakes, or otherwise deepen the experience for readers. 🙂

  8. Thanks, Angela. In yesterday's session I was wrestling with a backstory scene, so your thoughts help. I like your conclusion: "Make each word earn the right to be included. In this way, we can add depth and meaning without sacrificing the pace." I'll use it to guide my revision this morning.

    1. Yes if we can look at everything we write and really think about what it is adding to the story, and can we make it stronger, that's half the battle!

  9. Great points and wonderful example! It helps me to think of the phrase "sprinkle the backstory in." No steady downfall or deluge, just a sprinkle now and again when it matters. I'll be thinking through your words today as I edit an important scene--which has a splash of backstory.

    1. It really is a splash, a small bit that hooks the reader deeper, clarifying something for them, often increasing their insight on why the POV character is doing what they are doing, or feeling what they are feeling. 🙂

  10. Thanks for sharing your insights! Less is not ALWAYS more, especially in storytelling. I'm the son of a butcher, so I'll use a meat analogy. I want to give my readers the best cut of meat possible. Trim the fat. Chuck the bone. Chewy stuff...outta here. But, without some of it, you run the risk of dry, tasteless meat. I need to be more than clever about when to add backstory and description. I'm still very much an apprentice in the world of storytelling. Someday, I'll be a "journeyman" (as they called it in my father's world) storyteller. For now, my goal is clear: only put the most flavorful stuff of any carnivore's dreams in my shop's front window! My thanks go out to the WITS community for inspiring me.

    1. Very glad you found this helpful. 🙂 I will often think in terns of "less is more" but what I really mean is quality over quantity. If we think deep enough, we can write in layers, and a piece of description of backstory does more than one thing--it does several. One beat of strong body language shows so much more than a paragraph of "thinking," that sort of thing. But there is a richness element as well, and you are absolutely right--if we cut to the bone, the story is a bland experience for readers. 😉 We need to find the right balance.

  11. Thanks for sharing, Angela. And I appreciate your additional thoughts on Flashbacks vs Backstory.

  12. In this fast-paced world, authors are often confronted with "impatient readers." They prefer bare bones to characters baring their souls. Writers must guard against Info dumping and too much internal monologue. On the other hand, if we strip most of the background or emotion from our stories, our characters will fail to engender sympathy in our readers. As with most writing techniques, authors must find ways to strike a balance between telling too much and not telling enough.

    Great post, Angela! Pinned & shared.

    1. Thanks so much Linda. And yes absolutely it is all about that balance. 🙂 The more we read, write, and learn stronger craft, the more this balance becomes intuitive I think. 🙂

    1. Glad it had an impact. Consider it a writing prompt, and write up your own version on that past event. 🙂

    1. I think if we think of backstory as clues to a mystery, it works quite well--each bit of backstory we deliver is a hint, a hook, that pulls the reader in, making them feel they MUST read on to discover the whole story. 🙂

  13. Thanks Angela, this was a great post. I'm still puzzled how often you have to remind readers who minor characters are. First mention, easy. Sally, her daughter, used to ....But what about three chapters later. No mention of Sally in between. Should readers remember that Sally is her daughter?

    1. It all depends on the importance of the character. I think in this case it would be easy to weave in a thought here or descriptive bit there--you MC could think about her daughter in terms of time, checking her watch and seeing she still had an hour until she had to pick her daughter up from school, or band practice, or whatever. She could make a comparison or contrast observation to bring her daughter back into the mix--think about her in a scene where she's talking to another parent and that parent's child does something that is the complete opposite of Sally (or maybe just like her), again, easy to weave that in as dialogue, "Your son is so quiet. Sally would be asking a million questions by now." or a thought (If Sally were here, she'd make fast friends with this boy. She loved Goosebump books too.)

  14. This is excellent information, Angela! Thank you so much for sharing this with writers. I learn so much here and share it generously online. I write mostly YA short adventure stories and need to watch how much backstory I offer. Word count is very tight, like 1800 words in the Cricket Magazine market. Yet I feel some short clips of backstory are needed even in short story to explain why the MC feels the way he/she does. What are your takes, Angela, on including backstory in short stories--especially YA short stories with tight word counts? Oh and by the way, I need to get a Pinterest account to be able to see your tip sheet. I'm very interested in seeing that. Thanks for all you do to assist writers.

    1. It's hard to answer this without knowing just how important the story is on the current story, but my advice is to really challenge yourself as to whether the backstory is needed. If you take it out, are the story stakes no longer clear? Is the character's motivation uncertain?

      You can include it at any word count, but any backstory you include must FURTHER the story in some way, ADD something important that ties into the current scene (context) and be something where it can not be delivered in another way (such as symbolism, etc.) The shorter the story, the more I would look into what you could do through dialogue and symbolism, and whether alluding to something (such as a past trauma or event) is all you need, rather than showing it more fully.

      With children's magazine fiction, you especially don't want to pull readers away from the current story (as would happen if you used flashbacks). So if you include some, make it a snippet, such as a detail that suggests something important, or symbolizes a reason behind a behavior, an emotion, etc.

      1. Now I agree with using snippets and dialogue to tuck in any back details that are necessary to move the present action forward. I did this in my first story sold to Cricket where the mother died and that was why the teen was watching her brother while the Dad worked. Then some details as to how the teen knew certain knowledge to better the present situation and get the kids out of trouble. Thanks so much for this, Angela!

  15. What a wonderful post, Angela! The hardest backstory I had to do was for a war hero who had PTSD and the horrible memories that caused it. That was painful for me to write because it was such a horrendous memory for him (it still makes me cry), and it was so hard to get it just right to convey what I needed, but not what I didn't to get the scene on the page without an info dump. Thanks for this clarification.

    1. So very glad it helps, Calisa. I think scenes where the backstory is especially painful are the hardest to write--glad you worked through it.

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