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I recently read a published book and a work-in-progress where the backstory bogged down the action. In one, backstory was blatantly put in dialogue in such a way that it felt very unnatural. In the other, the backstory was aimed to get the reader back into the world that had been written in book one, but it wasn’t personal to the character. Or at least I couldn’t tell how it was personal. All of the information was overwhelming. It’s a common problem.
Let’s talk about various ways to NOT include backstory.
The Info Dump
Written like a character interview or a summary, it tells the reader the character’s history. This is how such an item might be written for my book ALONE. The book is written in first person, so this is also in first person:
After the death of my mother, I learned how to be sole cook and bottle washer before I was sixteen. After graduating from high school, I started my first job as a housekeeper when my father remarried. I’m twenty-five now and have completed college, but have continued working as a live-in housekeeper. I love running houses and doing all the cooking.
This past summer I was looking for a new job as a cook/housekeeper for several months when I heard that Mark Andrews, my favorite bestselling author, needed one. I jumped at the chance—applied and was accepted, packed up my possessions, and moved from California to Colorado.
All those things are true for my character, but not an exciting way to start out a story. It’s not till Chapter Six in the book that Mark Andrews asks Cecelia how she became a housekeeper and she responds. We do find out in Chapter One she moved from California to Colorado, but it’s in the midst of an argument with her new employer, versus a recitation of facts.
Or it might be world building that’s dumped on the reader. This is especially something seen in fantasy or sci-fi. There’s so much about the world, how it is different from the here and now. It’s all about the technology or the magic. It’s an introduction to the society, the setting, the time period, the culture. Sometimes we don’t even meet any characters. (Sorry, I can’t write an example.) But sometimes you hear it at the beginning of movies—that voice over with a variety of scenes flashing by. It always makes me want to say, “Get on with it!” And even if I like the movie, it’s the part I fast forward past on a DVD or in digital format.
So sprinkle your backstory in. If your reader doesn’t need to know it now, don’t include it. Show us the culture and setting instead of telling us about it. Let us see the character interacting, struggling, doing—we’ll be more interested.
If your character is saying something to another character that the second character already knows, it’s likely to sound odd. For example: “You know how I was working on my math homework, Mom? Well, it’s done,” Stephen said. “You said I could go to Eric’s when I was finished, so now I’m going.” That doesn’t sound very kidlike. A kid would be more likely to shout out, “Mom, I’m done! Off to Eric’s now.” Stephen slammed the math book shut and dashed out the door. See how I worked in the backstory with a bit of action?
Or if your character’s dialogue is all about getting information out—not a conversation or conflict, it’ll sound forced. E.g. “Dan lost his job two months ago” Lisa said. “He got fired for arguing with the boss about some ethical question. And now his unemployment is about to run out. But his wife doesn’t know he’s not working. He gets up every morning, dresses like usual, and goes out the door at the same time. I think he goes to an internet café and does job hunting. Or maybe he plays computer games all day. I don’t know, but it’s all going to come crashing down when he doesn’t have any more money.” It’s a lecture. It’s telling. Even if there is interaction with another character, it doesn’t change what this character has to say. It doesn’t move the story forward. Nothing is happening besides talk.
Conversely, if you include snippets of backstory in dialogue naturally, and things are happening in the story, no one will notice the backstory.
Think of it this way. When I meet a new-to-me person, I might shake her hand and introduce myself. But I don’t go on and on with my backstory. E.g. I’m a writer. I have two daughters—both are married. I have three grandsons. My husband and I have lived here for almost five years. Before that we lived in Kansas, then the Seattle area, and before that New Jersey and Denver. Of course, we lived in the Seattle area before. We’ve also lived in Eugene, Albany, Corvallis, and Klamath Falls, Oregon. We have a dog and a cat, and when these two die, don’t plan on getting any more. AGHHH! The woman would probably slip away from me as quickly as she could. Instead, we find information about each other gradually. Today I just found out that a friend plays piano—we met about fifteen years ago. We haven’t been in a position for that to come up and there’s been no need to know. It hasn’t hurt our friendship. We’ve dealt with more relevant things when we were together.
Make sure any backstory you include is relevant and comes across naturally. Or as Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.