Whether you are writing a standalone novel, the first book in a series or one further down the road, a character’s backstory can present a challenge. As an author you know your characters’ pasts well—or you should—but you can’t just dump every nuance on the page. Well, you can if your goal is to turn readers away. Let’s assume it’s not. Then writing becomes a delicate dance of balancing how much backstory to include and when to insert these insights that can make the difference between a reader flipping the pages or setting the book down.
First let’s get clear on what backstory is. Essentially, it’s the background of your characters and the experiences that have shaped their current personalities, preferences, motivations, etcetera. These events are basically what make them tick in the present day, why they make the decisions they do, what drives them. Backstory information manifests in narrative, dialogue, or in flashbacks, which are normally longer snippets of texts often distinguished by typesetting in italics.
To write a book without some backstory is near impossible. After all, even if this is your first book, characters didn’t just pop into existence on page one. Presumably they had a life before you and a past that made them who they are and their story worth telling. So it isn’t a matter of avoiding backstory altogether, it’s how we can effectively use it in our writing that’s key.
As someone who has written well over a million words (maybe two mil by now) and has over thirty published books, I have figured out some things along the way. I also write in several series. If you are writing a series, you realize the importance of making each book stand on its own so the reader has an enjoyable reading experience whether they’re reading book five or fifteen. The last thing you want is for them to be confused or frustrated—a sure way to never get a book of yours picked up again! To ensure readers have a seamless experience, inserting the proper balance of backstory is crucial. But just as important as how much is when to integrate it into the story to make for a page-flipping read.
Ask yourself the following either during the writing or editing stages:
- Is what you’re sharing relevant not just to the plot of the current book but the present moment in the story?
- Do you find that when you’re reading you slow down, stumble over the words, or your mind drifts?
If you answered “No” to question 1, and “Yes” to number 2, you have work to do.
Here are 4 tips to writing effective backstory:
- If backstory isn’t moving the story forward, it’s killing it. This can’t be stressed enough. Think of your book as a shark. If a shark doesn’t continue to swim forward, it will die. So will your book. It will be put down and start collecting dust or be deleted or filed away in an obscure part of an ereader never to be thought of again.
- Dispense with backstory on a need to know. Building off the first tip, only include backstory that is relevant to the current plot. It should keep the present day and your character upfront and in clear focus.
- Don’t include long drawn-out info dumps of backstory—ever! Telling the reader all about a past that doesn’t apply or has no bearing on the present moment weighs a book down. And if you put pertinent background on page one, but it’s not effecting a character’s choice until later on, the reader will have forgotten. You risk reader confusion. And we all know what that means… the book is getting put down.
- Keep it simple, stupid. Backstory and flashbacks should be kept to a minimum. Succinct, succinct, succinct. Oh, and don’t become repetitive like I just did there.
If you’re still having a hard time spotting whether your backstory is helping or hurting, it’s probably the later. And maybe it’s not what you’re sharing, when you’re sharing, but how much you’re sharing.
If you are to walk away with one tip from this post… Give your book a read test. If your reading slows or you mind wanders at any point, it’s a good sign to do some revising.
P.S. Oooh, before you run off… If you are an author and have suggestions of your own to writing effective backstory, please leave them in the comments!