Including backstory in a novel has its drawbacks. It tends to slow the pace and often ends up being a long-winded way to get across information the author deems relevant. Sometimes, poorly placed backstory can even confuse the reader. I’ve read more than one best-selling author that inserted exposition in the middle of dialog, and by the time the conversation ended, I had forgotten what the characters were talking about.
When I include backstory, I tend to write a full-fledged scene—paragraphs or even pages of the protagonist remembering a past event as if it were happening in real time. This, I think, is more engaging than ‘telling’ the reader what happened and can add depth to the character.
Unfortunately, the technique also temporarily breaks the timeline and can slow the momentum. Backstory, by definition, has already taken place, making it less important than the present. Oftentimes, the reader just wants to know what happens next rather than reading about how badly the protagonist was treated as a child.
My current manuscript has fewer flashbacks, and they are much shorter than usual. Instead, I’ve primarily used old letters and reports to introduce past events. This allows the story to unfold in real time as the reader experiences the event along with the character.
As always, there is a tradeoff. What you gain in pace, you can often lose in character development, The key is to understand your protagonist, give hints along the way as to their state of mind and what may have happened in the past. This leaves some mystery and allows the reader to discover the character by putting the puzzle pieces together on their own.
I’m certainly not against backstory. During slower, more reflective points, a well-written flashback can do a lot to round out your a character. Just make sure, however, to avoid slipping into one in the middle of a chase scene, slowing the pace to a halt.
Tell me in the comments section: how do you introduce backstory?