Backstory Is Essential to Story—Except When It’s Not

Image: the word "Danger!" spelled out in a large pile of salt spilled on a tabletop.

Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum: Who they are, what they want, and why they do what they do is rooted in who they have been and what they have done—in other words, backstory.

Backstory brings characters to life, gives them depth and dimension, and draws readers in. Without it characters may feel opaque or flat, their actions random or unmotivated.

But too much backstory can dilute and derail your actual story.

Backstory is a potent tool in your writing, and like all power tools it must be operated carefully—too much and your story may bog down and stall out; too little and readers may feel uninvested or confused. Finding that balance can be tricky.

When backstory works

I often joke that skillful writing techniques are a little bit like Supreme Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous 1964 opinion of pornography: You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.

But well-used backstory is often invisible, woven so seamlessly into the tapestry of the story that you don’t notice the individual threads. It can be as simple as a character saying, “You’re late again,” subtly weaving in the thread that this is a habitual behavior. Add in an exasperated sigh or disappointed head shake and we get another thread about these characters’ relationship—more invisible backstory.

That kind of backstory—context—is the most common and arguably foundational type, the kind of info that orients readers to the characters, their relationships, what’s happening in the story, and what it means. You can—and skillful writers often do—thread it throughout your manuscript, in nearly every line, and if it’s done smoothly it will serve to invisibly deepen and enhance the story.

It can also be effective to lace in longer beats of backstory: an echoed bit of dialogue from the past, the flash of a remembered image, a few bread crumbs of exposition that lead readers little by little down the path to the past.

But bigger instances of backstory can be effective too, as long as they serve the main story rather than yanking readers out of it: chunks of a memory or flashback or element of a character’s history that flow from the current story and fill in more pieces of the puzzle of why they act, think, behave as they do.

When backstory fails

Walking the tightrope of balancing backstory is often unfortunately often weighted to one side—backstory traps are legion and easy to stumble into:

  • Frontloaded backstory: This is among the most common missteps I see with backstory—authors worry that readers won’t understand or invest in their characters and story without “bringing them up to speed” before plunging them into it. This often results in swaths of backward-looking exposition that stall out your story before it even gets started.
  • Flashback backstory dump: Just what it sounds like—an overloaded flashback that exists mostly to fill in the blanks on a character’s past, and pulls readers away from the main story, stopping momentum cold.
  • Backstory taking over the story: Common in stories with a “mysterious past” or big reveal, those that may actually need to be dual-time line stories, or a story that hasn’t clearly defined its central spine, this trap spends so much time yanking readers into backstory that they may be left with whiplash, or lost in the rabbit hole of time.
  • Cryptic or coy backstory tease: A common symptom of stories where some secret from the past leads up to a climactic reveal, this trap happens when authors make repeated oblique references to past events, but without enough context to ground readers or make them care.
  • Unnecessary backstory: Self-explanatory. Like everything in story, if it isn’t essential, it risks hampering your story’s effectiveness. “Establishing” or “showing” some aspect of a character or plot is rarely reason enough to drop a wad of backstory on readers. Everything—including backstory—should move the main story forward.
  • Clunky intros and outros: Clunky lead-ins like, “She remembered as if it were yesterday” or “the memory played in his mind like a movie” are the equivalent of the whistle heard miles before the train speeds into view—and it brings the gate down just as thoroughly, pulling readers off the track. (In this metaphor, we want them in the path of the train!)
  • Not enough/poorly developed backstory: No one except Greek gods springs into existence fully formed. Characters without some measure of backstory—in every genre—can feel like cardboard cutouts, their actions, behaviors, and motivations so opaque that readers have nothing to sink their proverbial teeth into. Backstory that’s inadequately developed feels like checking generic boxes and can create characters that feel like stereotypes or clichés.

With all these backstory traps waiting for authors to fall heedlessly into their gaping maws, how can you determine whether and where you need backstory, and how best to weave it into your story?

Balancing backstory

I always suggest a few basic guidelines to make sure that the backstory you’re introducing feels organic and seamless to the story:

  • The Watergate question: This is my paraphrased version of the famed standard of guilt in the Nixon hearings: What do readers need to know and when do they need to know it? Successfully incorporating backstory means using it only as needed for readers to fully understand or feel invested in character or story actions—and only as much or as little as is required in that moment. Create depth and texture little by little, like individual brushstrokes in an Impressionist painting rather than big glops of monochromatic color.
  • Relevance: Make sure the backstory is directly related to the present story, and that it illuminates something essential in its action or the character arc. Context, memory, and flashback—the three main forms of backstory—feel most organic when readers can see what sparks the association in the present moment, how that backstory ties into what’s happening in the main story, and how it influences the character in the current story, whether by driving them to take a certain action, make a specific decision, evince a certain behavior, or gain some new understanding of a situation.

Read more: How to Transition into a Flashback

  • Specificity: Vague, generic backstory yields vague, generalized stories and characters. The more concrete, granular, and specific your backstory is, the more believable and dimensional it feels. “A difficult childhood” tells readers little; “an abusive parent” only marginally more. But the remembered image of your protagonist’s angry father storming into the boy’s bedroom and the rhythmic thwacks of his belt as he yanked it from the loops paints a much more vivid and visceral picture.
  • Weave backstory in fluidly and smoothly: A pithy heading for a big concept that can be hard to master, but one good test is this: If the backstory, no matter how large or small, draws attention to itself more than it illuminates something in the present moment, you’re likely hanging a lantern on it. Focus on the main story’s forward momentum, and use backstory as the seasoning that makes the stew.

Read more: Weaving Flashbacks Seamlessly into Story

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