Backstory can be related through dialogue, flashback, internal dialogue, thoughts, and narrative. Over the next few posts, we'll explore the finer points of using backstory with mastery.
1. Don't begin your novel with backstory. Invest your readers in the current situation before trying to explain the character's history. Otherwise, why should they care?
If the action has already passed, we know the characters lived to tell about it. It may have bearing on what is happening now, but the characters survived and have moved onto what is happening now. The reader may feel there is no need to read a long passage detailing what happened in the past if the characters are clearly functioning in the present.
2. Backstory is best presented in short bursts: no long-winded information dumps. The delicate balancing act is giving the reader enough backstory to help explain the current situation, but not so much that she is derailed from the forward momentum of the story.
3. If you feel a section of backstory requires a full scene with its own beginning, middle, and end, it should contain tension and a scene goal. A chapter or two of backstory loses the reader. She pages forward until she gets to the part that matters. That is not the kind of page turning to aim for.
4. Bits of backstory can be related through narrative, but keep it short and simple. Transition in and out and don't offset it. A paragraph or two should suffice. Resist the urge to insert large sections of italicized words. You should be able to transition into and out of backstory without resorting to special fonts or italics.
5. Backstory is not the same as a subplot set in the past when weaving separate story threads together. A subplot set in the past has its own story arc and every scene should contain conflict.
6. Backstory should not cram in the character's past history all at once. People don't tell each other everything about themselves and their lives the first time they meet. If they do, their psychological boundaries are fuzzy. They make people nervous by offering too much information. You don't need to tell your readers everything up front either. If you do, your structure is fuzzy. Build a relationship with the reader first then begin sharing stories from the past.
7. Backstory works well in internal conflict scenes when your protagonist struggles with his personal dilemma. His personal dilemma can be rooted in his past. It could be the partner he didn't save, the girl he didn't get, or the friend he failed. The backstory makes the current situation more poignant and should be relevant to the overall story. Resist the urge for a long memory scene. It is more powerful if the character is remembering while doing something to progress the currrent plot.
8. Backstory must, above all, be relevant. Don't spend paragraphs telling us about Dick's botany hobby unless he uses botany to solve the overall story problem. It bores your readers. They don't need to know about every Civil War battle, every lover the protagonist ever had, or the life stories of everyone who sank with the Titanic. Backstory that has no relationship to the current story is irritating. Readers flip past it or skim read it. If it happens often enough, they put the book down and walk away.
Stay tuned for more discussion on how to layer backstory to create conflict.
Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.