Does the reader need a detailed explanation of your character’s background in the first pages?
No. When you meet someone for the first time you usually don’t tell them your entire life story. As you get to know the person, the background comes in bits and pieces. So it is when writing. When you’re starting out, you as the author need to know everything about your character, so it’s okay to write those “expositional info dumps”, but you probably will not use everything in the story and certainly not all at once.
One of the best examples of revealing backstory is Dean Koontz’ Icebound, an adventure thriller. He feeds us tidbits as we read through the entire book—not revealing what the traumatic event was that makes the protagonist Rita Carpenter afraid of ice and snow—until the very end.
The first hint comes on page 31: In fact, she’d driven herself to return repeatedly to those polar regions primarily because she was afraid of them. Since the winter when she was six years old, Rita had stubbornly refused to surrender to any fear, ever again, no matter how justified surrender might be…
And so on—a little hint here and another one there, gradually filling in the backstory. It’s not until page 378 and then page 384 that we get the longest flashbacks that tells us exactly what happened to her at age six (only 1-2 pages long each).
Another example of needing some backstory is Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. Her father slaughters lambs, she tries to save one. The story continues with her need to be recognized, a need for a father figure, the need to do right. The backstory in this case sets up the emotional needs and fears of the character.
- Character histories should always be relevant to the action at hand
- Histories should be kept brief. Find a way to break it up over the course of the action
- Use a trigger—a song, a smell, something that reminds the character of something or someone and sends him/her back into the past. Create a scene with dialogue, action, etc. Then trigger the character back into the present (the song ends, someone asks a question, etc.) You must account for time passing
- Avoid flashbacks during an action/conflict scene. It stops the flow and bumps the reader out of the height of the action
What is your opinion of the best way to use back story?
|Shared by Heidi M. Thomas. A native Montanan, Heidi now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, have just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.|