#Writetip: dos and dont’s of using backstory…

The backstory is the event(s) or life moment(s) occurring before the actual story begins that shaped your characters and made them who they are: the abusive childhood, the painful divorce, fighting in the war, etc. Often this information needs to be conveyed to the reader so he/she can understand the character’s motivation, but you don’t want to clog up your story with it.

It used to be common to present backstory in a “flashback,” but that’s not done so much anymore. Instead, authors dribble in backstory in the present. Here are some dos and don’ts for how to handle it:

  • Do ensure the information is relevant. Just because your heroine has a past, doesn’t mean everything in her past matters. You as the author might need to know it to develop her character, but it might be superfluous to the reader.
  • Do not “data dump.” Once you’ve established that her horrific childhood or his painful divorce impinges on the present, don’t just dump it out there in one expository lump.
  • Do dribble in the details as the reader needs to know them.
  • Do not, please, I beg of you, pull an “As you know, Bob.”

“As you know, Bob” is an awkward device whereby one character tells another character a tidbit of information that he/she already knows just so the author can clue in the reader. It goes something like this:

(A sister is speaking to her brother)

“Ever since our parents were killed in a fiery car cash and we went to live with evil Aunt Jane, our lives have been hell.”

What’s wrong with that? The brother already knows! His sister doesn’t need to tell him that! But the reader doesn’t know it. So, weave the details into natural sounding dialogue:

“I can’t stand living with Aunt Jane. She’s mean!”
“I know. If only mom and dad had survived.”
“Nobody could have lived though that car crash.”

The same information is conveyed, but it occurs in a conversation that two people might actually have.

Questions about backstory?

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2 Responses to #Writetip: dos and dont’s of using backstory…

  1. Good post about back story. I’m saving it as a reminder of what to do … and what NOT to do.
    Thank you!

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