A backstory is an essential part of character development. Without it, the characters in a story may seem flat or one-dimensional. To create characters that leap off the written page and into a reader’s imagination, the writer must concoct a history and background.
Sometimes the history and background are quite interesting. It’s tempting to tell the reader everything about the character. However, stopping the action of the story to do an info dump of character history brings the novel to a screeching halt, and is a perfect place for readers to set the book down. They may not ever pick it up again.
Treat Backstory Like Glass
Margie Lawson, a teacher of a unique writing method called the EDITS system, explains how backstory should be handled. She says to think of backstory as a sheet of plate glass. Once the backstory has been all worked out, it is beautiful and clear. It may be so beautiful that an author wants to devote an entire scene or perhaps an entire chapter to it.
Instead, Margie advises that the writer drop that beautiful piece of plate glass and let it split into a thousand tiny shards and slivers. Then, as the story progresses, a sliver of backstory can be slipped into a scene without slowing down the action or taking the reader’s attention away from the story. Little by little, the backstory is inserted into the novel. There is no info dump, and the story maintains its pace.
Why Backstory is Important
The backstory is the impetus for character motivation. It will help the author and the reader understand why a character acts in a certain way. It also provides the backdrop for character interactions.
If a character grew up with parents that were always running from the police, then any encounter with law enforcement will be tense. The author knows this because of creating the backstory. The reader doesn’t need to know every detail about every run-in with the police the character witnessed. It’s enough to slip in a little flashback or thought that clues the reader into why the character is afraid of the law.
Writers should complete a full and descriptive backstory for themselves to use. However, the only things that need to be revealed to the reader are the things that move the plot forward. If it doesn’t advance the plot, then it should be saved for another scene where it will work better. This is something more fully explained in the article Techniques of the Selling Writer.
Backstory provides fullness to a novel. It can apply to settings as well as people. When including backstory, avoid the dreaded info dump by slivering the details into the scenes like a sliver of glass slides into a mosaic. It’s not noticeable as it goes in, but the reader will know something is missing without it.