As avid readers, writers have an intuitive sense of when to include backstory. Their efforts, however, can come across as either boring (in the case of info dump), laughable (in the case of random irrelevance), or disruptive (in the case of backstory delivered too soon).
Clearly, these reactions are not ideal. What’s going wrong?
In each case just mentioned, the backstory inclusion is driven by the author’s goal to deliver information and not, as it should be in every scene, driven by the demands of the protagonist’s story.
The purpose of backstory is to motivate your characters for the actions they take in the current story. Unless something from the past had a powerful influence on the way the characters are acting now, you’ll be hard-pressed to defend the relevance of its inclusion. In fact, you may not have the chance to try—you may already have lost your reader.
Accept these cold, hard facts about backstory
- The reader approaches your novel with an interest in your character’s history that is idle to nil. During your opening, the reader’s primary goal is to orient to the frame of the story you want to tell, and will simply accept what you tell her on page one as being the current state of things. It is up to you to generate interest in the protagonist’s history.
- “Because I wrote it and it’s interesting” is not a standard of relevant inclusion. You might want to include your character’s entire personal history because you took the time to write it, but you were doing so to start to get a sense of your character. In your novel, that character will pop to life through only those backstory inclusions that will motivate the story you want to tell.
- Every time you switch to a backstory scene you stand the chance of jarring readers from the fictive dream, which will invite them to set down your book. It’s up to you to ease the transition.
One mad skill will address all three of these issues, and I’m shocked that more writers don’t use it. [Read more…]