Charlotte Rains Dixon  

Tips For Writing Fiction: Backstory

Before we get to the subject of tips for writing fiction, and specifically, backstory, let me remind you of the contest I’m running.  All you have to do is answer a wee survey and your name will get put in the hat for a drawing with the wonderful prize of a complimentary coaching session with moi.

Here’s the link:  Another Contest:  What Are Your Writing Problems?  You can head on over there really quick and take the survey, I’ll wait.  Okay, good, thanks.  Now onto backstory.

I’ve been reading The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.  One thing I’ve noticed is that it has lots of backstory in it.  A lot lot. Maybe even a little too much, because backstory, as we all know, slows the narrative down.   

But it got me to thinking and I realized that the novel I’m currently rewriting for the fourth time is the wee-est big lacking in backstory.  As in, it has barely any.  Could this be what one agent meant when she said she loved the novel but wanted it to have a bit more substance?

I think it could.  I believe I came to this place because my last novel, which I like to call my MFA novel, because, amazingly enough, I wrote it during the two years I was getting my MFA, had nothing but backstory.  The novel was one big backstory dump.

So it may not be a big surprise that this current novel has next to no backstory.  But now I think the time has come to add some, and that, and Joshilyn Jackson, have gotten me thinking about it.

Backstory is exactly what it says—it’s the story that happened before the novel opened.  It is what is in your character’s backgrounds, their stories that they carry around in their heads, the events that shaped them.  We novelists love backstory because we love our characters and we want to know every tiny bit of everything that ever happened to them.

However, you may love all those bits of fascinating history, but your reader does not.  You reader loves the current story that you signed on to tell.  And backstory is not it.

The common rule about backstory is to use it only when the reader needs to know something. 

My take is to consider what the reader wants about what led to the situation as it currently stands.  For instance, the Joshilyn Jackson book is about conflict between sisters.  So we naturally want to know at least a little  about where that conflict started and why.

Providing judicious amounts of backstory helps to illuminate the central question about your character: will she change and why?  If not, why not?  In The Girl who Stopped Swimming, I’m wondering if the two sisters will come to terms with their conflict, ie, grow and change.

Be aware that writing backstory requires a delicate balance.   Too much, and the story bogs down.  Not enough, and your reader won’t understand your character’s motivations.  It is hard to find this balance, as my own experience attests. 

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask: what does she need to know and when?

Another guideline for backstory is to be sure to get the story rolling before you drop in chunks of it.  And better yet, do it in little petite batches, instead of the chunk thing, okay?  Think about how you might remember something that happened to you.  Instead of telling yourself the whole story you might remember it in dribs and drabs.  So, too with backstory–feed us a little here, and a teeny bit more over there.

You also don’t want to put all your backstory at the end.  However, you might well be withholding a piece of backstory for dramatic effect–perhaps it is some family history that the heroine finally gets the significance of, for instance.   Which brings up another point about backstory–it can be used as a pacing element.  The above-mentioned example is called a reveal, and reveals are excellent for creating cliffhangers and so forth.

Backstory, when used correctly, deepens a character.  Just remember that most of want we want to see is the character acting on her current problems (which are no doubt related to the backstory) in the contemporary story.

0 thoughts on “Tips For Writing Fiction: Backstory

  1. Jen

    Interesting discussion of a tough writing dilemma–I’ve struggled with this one myself. I was just reading through one of my 3/4-finished novels, and I’d guess that 1/3 of it is backstory. Sigh. Time to break out the red pen…

  2. Charlotte

    I know, it is so hard to get rid of it. But in most cases, backstory is way more important to the author than the reader. And at least by writing it, you know what the backstory is, and that adds depth to the story.

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