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On Backstory

// Author: Jordan Locke // 6 Comments

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?

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  1. Jordan Locke - October 24, 2013 12:37 am

    Please post a comment.

  2. Gareth Eynon - October 26, 2013 8:12 am

    The majority of backstory in my book comes in the form of me explaining the technology in the sci-fi world I’ve created. I feel that it’s essential for my story that the reader understand and, more importantly, can relate to the world this is set within. It’s a bit of headache for me, though, and because I still haven’t had feedback on my first draft, I’m not yet sure if it has worked or not.

    I introduce these chunks of backstory by coving the history of said technology and attempting to make it a progressive piece of text in its own right (a couple of these segments are a few pages long). My way of getting in and out of these segments is modeled on the way Tolstoy talks about military history in War and Peace: by slipping out of the narrative and back in again without any explanation to the reader. I seriously doubt if my method is as seamless as Tolstoy’s, but it’s a method that I really admired when I first read that wonderful book. And practice make perfect, eh?

    Whether or not my approach will work remains to be seen; this is my first book.

    Nice post, thanks

    • Jordan Locke - November 3, 2013 2:14 pm

      Thanks, Gareth.

      There are many ways to introduce backstory, and different genres tend to have different conventions. They key is keeping the reader engaged.

      Science fiction is particularly difficult because you’re throwing the reader into an unfamiliar world. Personally, I think it’s better to deliver the information bit by bit rather than hitting the reader with it all at once, but sometimes a longer segment can work.

      Either way, just keep writing. You can always revise later.

  3. Susan L. Lipson - November 1, 2013 4:31 am

    I’ve been trying to reveal backstory in my first-person narration as my protagonist’s naturally occurring recollections sparked by current events. If it doesn’t evolve the way a memory would occur to me during a related experience, then I won’t use it, lest I end up with an intrusive information dump. Does that make sense?

    Best of luck!

    • Jordan Locke - November 3, 2013 2:18 pm

      Yes, this does make sense. You need a trigger for the backstory or flashback, or the information seems to come out of the blue. Sounds like you’re on the right track.

  4. Jenny - November 8, 2013 12:34 am

    Great post! I personally try to avoid backstory because I feel like so often it comes through telling rather than showing. So I try and incorporate backstory either into conversations, or action. It’s tricky to do, but I think that if I can sneak it into the story without it saying “Oh hey, I’m backstory!” then I’m doing something right.

    Thanks for the twitter follow! Awesome website.


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