Patrick from Edinburgh has been attending a writers’ group where more experienced writers talk about story and backstory. He isn’t sure of the difference between the two and sent in this heartfelt plea: Please can you explain to me what backstory is. Isn’t that the whole point of telling a story – to let readers know what’s happened to the character?
Let’s start by defining story: a story is a series of events, taking place in a particular setting, which cause a character, or characters, to undergo change or growth.
Now to define backstory: backstory is everything the author needs to know about the characters and setting in order to create a credible and riveting story.
Notice I said everything the author needs to know. The reason for the emphasis is because the reader doesn’t need to know all these things. All the reader needs to know, or rather wants to know, is how the characters react and what part the setting has to play in events.
My day job is critiquing the work of other writers and I deal with a large number of beginners, who almost invariably begin with a backstory info dump of astronomical proportions.
Whenever I point this out to the author, I get a reply explaining exactly why it is essential that the reader knows immediately that Freddy, who is nearly fifty, on the fat side, with sandy hair, hazel eyes, dark eyebrows and a lop-sided grin has only been out of prison for two weeks after being sent down for twenty years for aggravated assault while robbing a post office, not just one post office but a string of them and a bank, too, although he wasn’t actually convicted of the bank job because the cashier turned out to be an unreliable witness (in the end he only served fifteen of the twenty term because he got time off for good behaviour, although he wasn’t really good but the screws were on his payroll so didn’t report that he’d been running a gambling and drug ring on the inside, although one did try to grass him up, but he soon put a stop to that by getting the screws who were on the take to beat him up) and in the first week after getting out he tracked down his old girlfriend because she’d stopped visiting him and he had to beat her and her new boyfriend to a pulp because he couldn’t let them get away with making a fool of him.
If the reader doesn’t know all that, the aggrieved author will ask, how will they understand why he did what he did in week two? Quick answer? They’ll never need to understand, because they won’t read far enough into the book to care!
Taking the example above, how much does the reader really need to know? Very little. All of it is backstory and slows the storytelling.
Some advice given me to when I started out as a writer was to open as close to the action as possible. This is impossible to do if you start out by telling the reader who the players are and why they are there.
Let’s take Freddy and, instead of lumping all that information into the intro, put him right into a pivotal scene instead. If the book opened with Freddy confronting his ex-girlfriend and then beating up the boyfriend, the author would have the perfect opportunity to let the reader know that Freddy is just out of jail. Freddy could berate his ex-girlfriend because she didn’t wait for him. She, in turn, could impart all sorts of information about Freddy and his past as she begs him to spare her new lover.
If we really needed to, we could also learn that Freddy is a bit overweight because he isn’t as fit as he used to be before he went inside. How would the author tell us this? He wouldn’t – he’d show it by Freddy being surprised at how slow he is in attack and being horrified to find he’s wheezing at the end of the fight.
An info dump in the opening paragraphs is the kiss of death to any novel. Opening paragraphs have to hook readers and compel them to read on. They need to make the reader wonder why the characters are acting as they are. As I said earlier, the author needs to know everything, but readers only need to know just enough to intrigue and keep them turning the pages.
Readers can find out a few chapters further on what Freddy got up to while he was inside – provided it’s essential for them to know. But this doesn’t mean it’s okay to use info dumps later in the book. The moment a passage of backstory appears on the page, the author’s voice takes over and the reader is jolted out of the story.
Characters should be just like the people you meet. You have to get to know them by their actions and dialogue. If they speak for themselves, readers will believe in them and follow wherever they go. If the author speaks for them, that connection is broken.
One of the reasons writers are hammered with the mantra of “show, don’t tell” is because it is almost impossible to make an info dump of backstory if you are showing your characters in action, but all too easy to do so if you go into a long spell of narrative.
So, to summarise: think of backstory as an iceberg. It is everything that has happened to the character up to the point he or she appears in the story. The author needs to know all of this so that the players act in character. The reader only needs to know the iceberg tip – just enough to keep them intrigued and desperate to turn those pages.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer's ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.
Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of crime/thriller, Bad Moon Rising, featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey. The second in the series, Someday Never Comes, was released earlier this year and the third, Call It Pretending, will be out in December.