I’m continuing to write about backstory because it continues to be a topic that confounds writers — and not just any old topic, but a seminal topic. Because backstory is the heart of your novel, without it you will just have a bunch of surface things that happen. In fact, you not only need to create your protagonist’s story-specific backstory before you shove her onto page one, that very backstory will be on the first page. I’m betting you don’t believe me, which is why this month’s entry is all about how backstory is very often right there in the first few pages of your novel, and how it often goes on for pages.
And here’s the shocking thing, given the way writers are often told to think of backstory (that it slows the novel down; or worse, stops it altogether): backstory is actually what holds the story together. It’s the spark that gives it juice. It’s what pulls you in and makes you care. It’s the layer we’re hardwired to respond to; it’s what gives meaning to everything that is happening up there on the surface.
Wait, you might be thinking. Am I hearing you correctly? Because it sure as heck sounds like you’re talking about an Info Dump. We touched on this a couple of months ago, but right now I want to shine a bright light on it. This might make you feel kind of squeamish. I mean, an “Info Dump” sounds like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe. Definitely not like something you talk about in polite society.
Ah, but we must. Because the problem is that we’ve conflated Info Dumps with what is being “dumped.” That is: backstory. Writers are taught to shun backstory for fear it will “slow their story down” or worse, derail it entirely. And hey, since the last thing you want is to inadvertently leave “droppings” of backstory throughout your novel, why even spend much time developing it? Arrghh! That’s like putting on an ill-fitting, poorly constructed pair of pants, looking in the mirror and thinking, “Boy that looks awful, I’m NEVER wearing pants again!” It’s not pants that are the problem; it’s the way THOSE pants were made (and if you’re anything like me, spending a bit more time at the gym wouldn’t hurt either).
The point is, when it comes to Info Dumps, backstory is not the problem. It’s how the backstory is injected into the narrative that matters. When it’s unceremoniously dumped, it does stop the story cold. And yes, absolutely, no one should do that. Ever. But when backstory is artfully layered in? It’s what makes the story compelling, propelling it forward, giving it power. The takeaway on backstory is this: don’t give us backstory inartfully.
So, let’s focus on two things here:
- What constitutes large inartful pieces of backstory – aka the dreaded Info Dump.
- What the same type of information looks like when artfully woven in.