In prior posts in this Writing Basics series, there have been references to focusing on why your protagonists are doing the things they’re doing, and feeling the things they’re feeling. One piece of that - the piece we’ve already posted about - has to do with their current need, want, motivations, and response to the conflict they find themselves in as the story unfolds.
The second piece has to do with the baggage they walked into your story carrying. That baggage is called backstory. Here are the core guiding principles to keep in mind with backstory:
Just enough to keep it interesting;
Always there for a reason.
Backstory is your character’s history. It’s what happened to them in their childhood, the experiences that made them the way they are, believe the things they believe. It’s what shaped their world view, caused what became their fears. Every character has it - none of us are walking around a blank slate, with no experiences that have shaped us into who we are today. To find out what each character’s backstory (sometimes called emotional wound) is, you need to identify the what, when, why, where, & who of the important event(s) from your protagonist’s past. These are happenings that shaped your character, so consider: did their personality change after it? Was it random or deliberate? Were they the target or a witness? Do they hold themselves responsible? If they were hurt, did the person get away with it? Was there a domino cause & effect from it? What was the emotional fallout? What new behavior or belief did they adopt because of it? What negative life lessons did they internalize?
Fears and beliefs should look familiar from the post on character and emotional arcs. Backstory is necessarily connected to the character’s arc because it is the trauma/event that planted the seeds of the fears and beliefs your protagonist will face and finally come to terms with in the story.
Some confuse backstory and flashbacks. Here is the difference: Backstory is your character’s history. Flashback is a device you might decide to use to share pieces of that history with your reader. Backstory is necessary. Flashback isn’t.
Backstory in 1st Person Point of View
When you are writing in 1st person you are in the mind of your character, observing the world from inside their head. This perspective can make revealing backstory tricky because unless memory loss is part of the character’s traits, they know their own history. You can be coy, pretend the character just doesn’t want to think about it, or decide it will only be on their minds at the exact moment you need it to be, but beware: if you take that approach you run the risk of frustrating your reader. Why? It will feel like you’ve been withholding from the reader, and for good reason - you have been.
Consider a different approach: Accept that your character knows their own backstory, that it has impacted them, and hang the plot on the things the character doesn’t know yet - such as the deeper impact that backstory is having on them, or how they’re going to be asked to face the same thing, but react differently this time (showing they’ve learned and grown from their experiences). If you focus on the front story, you can reveal the past as it is naturally connected to the present, and feeding into who the character will become in the future.
When to Reveal Backstory
Think of the entire backstory as a puzzle you’ll break into pieces. When will you share each piece?
1. Only when you have to;
2. Only in small bits;
3. Only to advance/explain key parts of the plot, to make things more interesting, motivate your character, or add essential depth to the story.
Remember that plot is a forward-moving freight train. Backstory is a deliberate shift in the opposite direction, namely, into the character’s past. To make that sudden reversal work, ask yourself these questions:
Does the reader need to know this piece of the backstory?
If so, do they need to know it right now?
Another way to ask that is: Can the reader not make sense of what the character is doing or feeling unless they know this critical piece of information? If it is necessary to understand what the character is doing at this exact moment in the story, you do need that piece of the backstory puzzle embedded in the scene.
For those of you who loved those find-the-match memory games when you were younger, try thinking of each piece of backstory as an image on one card that you have to match up with an event in the plot line.
How to Reveal Backstory
I need it. I know where it goes. How do I layer it in? There are several writing devices that you can use to deliver that critical piece of backstory, including dialogue (keep it natural!) and the character’s interiority (thoughts) in the moment. Either of these options would likely “bump” the reader out of the forward motion of the story the least, and so are most often going to be the right choice. However, sometimes you do want a more drastic spotlight on a piece of backstory. In those select circumstances, you might use a flashback, or a rare piece of exposition.
Flashback is a technique for folding backstory into a scene. Backstory already stops the forward motion of the story, but a flashback is that on steroids because you cut from the current scene completely, make a transition to alert the reader, then move somewhere else in space and time, create a full and complete scene in that other space and time, before coming back to the present moment. An example of this, albeit not a drastic one, is in The Hunger Games, when Katniss recalls Peeta giving her bread. That moment is important in the dynamic between them, so calling it out in a more drastic way highlights the moment for the reader, and plants it in their memory more firmly so they carry it forward with them through the rest of the story. Notice that it’s mirrored later, when Katniss goes to get medicine for Peeta.
Risks: you stop the forward momentum of the scene, so extra work must be done to make sure the reader feels effortlessly brought along as you change time and place.
Exposition - An earlier post talked about the benefits of exposition when used as road signs an author leaves for themself as they’re working through early drafts. If you decide to use exposition in a different way - not as a marker to yourself that you’ll remove during revision, but as the vehicle for telling the reader about backstory, follow this one simple rule:
Don’t Scooby Doo It.
You know what I’m talking about: The mystery is finally solved! Only question left: why did the crook do it? Cue the sudden reveal of the full backstory, followed by, “and I would have gotten away with it too . . .” In one dump, we’re told all the things the story could have included, but didn’t.
If you are using exposition (either as part of a flashback or independently) to layer in backstory you still need to follow the rules above, namely, give each piece exactly when it’s mandated by the story. If you have Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, re-read it, and notice how seamlessly she weaves in backstory in a variety of ways, including some brief moments of exposition.
The Last Step - Check It
The next post in this Writing Basics series will be all about revision, but as a general rule, when you are working through your first draft use your gut instinct to put backstory where you think it might belong (guided by the questions listed above). Then, when you’re in the revision process, go back through your manuscript and highlight all instances of backstory. Evaluate whether you need it, and if you do, assess whether you’ve put it in the right place. Look for large expository chunks, awkward dialogue, or clunky transitions to flashback scenes. Mark these passages, and know that you’ll need to smooth, balance, incorporate, and even sometimes cut, them during the revision process.
If you have questions about backstory, or are looking for craft books that might give you more guidance on how to wrangle it into your story, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins. Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at andreacusterwrites.com, WriteTogether.Today, and TipsForTeenAuthors.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.