Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Backstory Thing

There's a lot of advice out there about writing backstory. For the most part, I've seen stuff that tells you to not to use it, it is evil and boring and everyone will hate your book if you write it.

Which, well, isn't true.

It is true that backstory can be misused (and it can kill when used poorly), but it's much like any writer tool out there—it has to be done properly, with purpose, and in moderation.

In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say that there is a problem with your book if you have absolutely zero backstory. Why? Because backstory builds the foundation of the current story, of the characters who are part of it. Your story, if it emulates reality, does not happen in a vacuum. If a reader knows nothing of the character and their life pre-story, it's much harder to care about the things happening to them in the story.

Backstory—it's your bread and butter when it comes to characterization. And pitch perfect characterization? Essential to a compelling read.

The Right Form
Backstory isn't just flashbacks, right? There are many ways to get that info out—dialogue, action, memories, etc. It's important to use the entire arsenal, not just one trick. Look for ways to vary your backstory and make it work. It's totally possible.

The Right Balance
Like most things in writing, backstory can go wrong fast. Many would say the most common issue is having too much, but too much isn't the huge problem some make it out to be. You would be surprised how much backstory a book can handle when done right.

Example: The Hunger Games. In the second chapter, there is a six-page flashback. Yes, six whole pages of FLASHBACK. Collins stopped her tension-packed novel for six pages to tell us something about the past.

Was that a bad move? Oh, no. Not at all. It was the perfect move. The flashback I'm referring to is the one in which we learn the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, how him giving her that bread saved her family, how she has always felt indebted to him, and now she must enter the games with this person.

This flashback is the foundation for everything the reader feels about Katniss and Peeta through the rest of the novel. Would we have felt so strongly if we didn't know this about them? I'm gonna say no, probably not.

This flashback, while it seems counterintuitive, doesn't stop the forward action, it makes it mean something. It increases the tension. The book would not be the same without it.

The Right Placement
For me, placing backstory is the make or break, and it's often where writers make missteps. You can certainly have a six-page flashback, but it only works if it's relevant. In fact, backstory ONLY works when it's immediately relevant to your story.

Going back to The Hunger Games flashback, notice that it's placed at the exact moment it becomes important to the story—when Peeta is announced as the male tribute. There is no mention of it before that. No need. If that flashback came out of nowhere at the beginning? Though essential information to the book, maybe it would not be received as well because the reader would not have seen the connection immediately.

The Right Information
While backstory builds character, it's important to build the right things. At times, we can make the mistake of putting in the wrong bit of information. Does the reader need to know that your character never learned to ride a bike? If so, the reader will get on board with backstory about why. If not, the reader will be annoyed with backstory about why. It's that simple.

Basically, backstory has to feel essential to a reader. You get that and you're golden, no matter how much you put in (See If I Stay by Gayle Forman for another amazing use of flashbacks. Basically, over half the book is flashback and it ROCKS.). So don't feel like you have to chop out all your flashbacks and whatnot, just make sure they work. Don't avoid a tool because you can't use it—practice and study until you get it right, because it's a tool for a reason.


  1. "This flashback, while it seems counterintuitive, doesn't stop the forward action, it makes it mean something. It increases the tension."

    That, my dear, is the key! Yes! Well said.

    And keeping with your HG example, imagine if she had written that flashback as a prologue instead. It would be a sweet scene, but there wouldn't be any significance to it. And we would have to make a big jump from little!Katniss and little!Peeta to the teenagers we saw step onto the stage and accept their fates as tributes.

    That's why some people hate prologues so passionately. (Although, ironically, I am not one of those people. As you said, as long as it's done right, it can be done.)

  2. Awesome post, Natalie! And I TOTALLY agree. It's never a matter of what you do. Anything--any technique or writing tool--can work if done properly. It's not what you do but how you do it that makes something work or not work in a story.

  3. Totally agreed - I found my problem was with blurting all my backstory out in the first chapter, then getting off to a REALLY slow start before getting to the action. But I still need that backstory. I just need to interweave it in a better way. So I've worked hard on that :)

  4. Very nicely said! Also, methinks the way you incorporate backstory should be representative of genre and form. Flashbacks work well in YA because they require little to no explanation and they ease the feeling of information being dumped on a reader. Thrillers often contain absolutely no backstory (even though it would often make reading easier, bah!) because they're meant to make the reader feel disoriented, because they move so FAST. Lately, I've seen fantastic use of footnotes in novels to incorporate backstory, often in a voice as witty/chatty/engaging as that of the narrator, if not more so--think THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, THE MEANING OF NIGHT, or the BARTIMEUS TRILOGY. Each of these books are heavily rooted in history (cultural or political) of some sort, but they doesn't ensnare the reader in the middle of the story the way a book like THE DANTE CLUB or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEE occasionally does.

  5. I liked how you put examples of how the Hunger Games did it well. That really helps me absorb it. Thanks.

  6. I just finished The Summer I Turned Pretty and it is a great example of perfect backstory placement. Each memory made me connect with the characters even more. Definitely agree that backstory is an incredible tool when used correctly.

  7. Yes, backstory must be relevant and properly applied. I cut 45 pages of backstory from my novel when my editor pointed out to me that my story didn't start until page 46. I'm glad I made the change.

  8. Awesome post...Makes perfect sense.
    *dives back into revision hole*

  9. This might be the first time that I've heard praise for backstory.
    When I first started writing, I believed just about anything, and I tried to cut all the back out of my stories because I'd heard that it's a sign of bad writing. It didn't seem to work as well without it, but I thought, surely everyone else knows what they're doing better than I do, and the fact that I rely on some backstory means that I'm not a good writer yet poo.
    It's nice to hear someone say out loud that it's not (necessarily) the case!

    In the same vein, I took the "show don't tell" adage so far that I was terrified of saying (for example) that my character "laughed". I experimented with showing what it looked and sounded like when she laughed, haha. Sometimes that can be good, I guess... like, if she has a quirky way of laughing... but sometimes, it's not so great. Certainly not all the time.

    Mm... tangent: end.

  10. I find that making graphs (I'm a dork!) to chart tension over time in my books really helps me figure out where to put the backstory (and worldbuilding, too, for that matter). You need to build up enough momentum and tension capital in order to spend it on backstory. And since it takes a LOT of momentum and tension to buy just a little backstory, you really have to make sure you choose the most relevant and necessary details to include.

  11. These are really helpful distinctions, and I agree with you that backstory supplies much of the tension, the substance, of a book and its characters when done well.

  12. Great tips here. I love it when authors challenge conventional writing wisdom with good counterexamples.

    Relevance is definitely key with backstory. Where it slows down the forward movement of the narrative, it's distracting. And where it is irrelevant, it's disastrous.

    Harlan Coben, for example, makes a habit of interrupting his stories with meaningless details about where his character's acquired something or to share a character's shopping preferences. (I've begun to suspect that these are product placements.) He and Dan Brown also stop frequently to tell us what a very minor character did the afternoon before. This kind of "backstory" detail, which they seem to think somehow makes their characters more real, often has no bearing on the story, and it totally stalls the scene.

    Also, backstory can be handled quickly using non-scenic representation. I just wrote a piece on showing versus telling that addresses this in passing: http://behopkins.com/2011/06/29/the-case-of-show-v-tell

  13. I'm working on fixing my back story issues right now. They are definitely challenging. It's interesting to me that the flashbacks in Hunger Games worked so wel as they are always poo-pooed by editors.

  14. I do my backstory in a chunk and then forget it exists for chapters on end. It helps me to remember that backstory can just be a quick paragraph here and there.

  15. Good points. I think backstory is a necessity, and must always be used well. If I feel the bump, as a reader, it's not done well.

    When I'm reading something and I suddenly noticed we just got a dose of backstory w/out expecting it / realizing it, I go back to see how they did it.