Top 4 Tips for Using Backstory in Your Novel

I finished up last week’s post with this statement: Our aims as writers shouldn’t be to eliminate backstory, but to be deliberate and purposeful when we use it.

We have to be careful with backstory, because while it is critical to our novels, it also has the pesky tendency to crave attention, sort of like that classmate who insisted on singing in the annual talent show each year, even though she sounded like a combative koala. Backstory thinks it has a beautiful, spellbinding voice that everyone would pay big bucks to hear on Broadway, but in reality, it makes listeners cover their ears and demand a refund.

Judicious sprinklings of backstory give a sense of well-rounded, relatable characters whose past influences who they are today and what they’ll do tomorrow. In this week’s post, I’m going to share my top four tips on how to tame the Backstory Beast and use it to your advantage.

I.                   Realize Not Everything Has to be Explained

It’s a popular practice for authors to spend hours and hours getting to know their characters before they sit down to write their first draft. They interview their new fictional friends and ask them a boatload of questions, such as “What’s your worst fear?” and “What do you eat when you’re stressed?” This can certainly be a helpful exercise because it reveals our characters’ personalities, quirks, and motivations, but we don’t have to feel obligated to share every idiosyncrasy and secret with our readers.

Keep your readers on a need-to-know basis. Before you drop a bit of backstory, ask yourself whether the information is truly relevant and essential to the reader’s understanding of the character. For example, in Batman Begins, it’s important that we see young Bruce fall into the well to better understand his phobia of bats. But there’s no flashback of how Alfred began working for the Wayne family because that knowledge isn’t pertinent.

II.                 Be Detail Oriented

If you want to describe two friends’ love for one another, the Backstory Beast might rear its loud, obnoxious head and shout, “Start back at preschool and describe their 25-year friendship! The ups and the downs, the quarrels and the betrayals…everything!” We must promptly muzzle the Beast and resist the temptation to spend pages chronicling a gigantic chunk of time.

Instead of explaining the entire friendship, have the characters reminisce over the day they met in seventh grade. Maybe one of them was the awkward, pimply, brace-faced new kid and the other abandoned the gaggle of popular kids to sit with her at lunch. Or maybe they both met in the waiting room at their therapist’s office and began chatting about their respective problems; they didn’t even need a therapist after that.

Choose one moment in time to capture the tone and theme that will best serve your story and develop your characters.

 

 Top 4 Tips on Using Backstory in Novel

Use Dialogue

Dialogue can be an effective weapon against the Backstory Beast, but it must be wielded with skill. We want to avoid the notorious “As you know, Bob” tactic by which the author essentially just uses a massive scene of dialogue in which to dump a whole lot of boring backstory. Character A tells Character B all about Situation X, which can make Algebra II seem heaps more interesting than our stories.

Why is the above strategy so boring? Because it lacks immediate tension and conflict.

Ask yourselves these questions before using dialogue to talk about the past:

  • Is this the right place to put it?
  • Are these the right characters to be discussing it?
  • If I change/add/subtract characters, does it change the dynamic?

If the characters who are having the conversation haven’t entered into or resolved a conflict by the end of their exchange, it needs to be reworked, either with different characters or with a renovated M.O. that will move the story forward.

For example, you could have a couple eating dinner at a five-star restaurant. They’re getting pretty serious. The woman opens up to her boyfriend about a past relationship in which her then fiancé cheated on her multiple times. At the end of the conversation, she can’t help but notice her new boyfriend not-so-subtly ogling the waitress’s rear end as she walks passed them. The woman becomes reticent and subdued, then makes up an excuse to end the date early. She’s made up her mind that all men are the same.

Use a Prologue

Another option for avoiding backstory is to use a Prologue. A prologue can help you outline the backstory quickly and efficiently, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or not-so-subtle devices such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader.

We often see prologues in Sci-Fi and Fantasy books, and even before films when a few orienting paragraphs (such as the ones before Gladiator) fills us in on the time period and condition of the empire, city, family, etc. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter loaded down with detail.

From Gladiator:

AT THE HEIGHT OF ITS POWER, THE ROMAN EMPIRE WAS VAST, STRETCHING FROM THE DESERTS OF AFRICA TO THE BORDERS OF NORTHERN ENGLAND.

OVER ONE QUARTER OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION LIVED AND DIED UNDER THE RULE OF THE CAESARS.

IN THE WINTER OF 180 A.D. EMPEROR MARCUS AURELIUS’ TWELVE-YEAR CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE BARBARIAN TRIBES IN GERMANIA WAS DRAWING TO AN END.

ONE FINAL STRONGHOLD STANDS IN THE WAY OF ROMAN VICTORY AND THE PROMISE OF PEACE THROUGHOUT THE EMPIRE.

 

Managing the Backstory Beast is actually rather fun. Being aware of its insatiable thirst for the spotlight reminds us to keep our writing mostly in the present and encourages us to devise creative ways of explaining our story without peppering our narrative with past incidents.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful! Please leave a comment or tweet me with your current favorite writing tip at @dandersontyler!

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

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