A backstory is a beautiful thing. It can open our eyes to a character’s motives, leave clues to what’s coming next, and much more. I LOVE backstories. Who doesn’t? Writing backstories can be a tricky beast, though, which brings us to today’s topic!
Backstory Mistakes to Avoid
- Jumping the gun – Revealing backstory or inserting flashbacks too soon can take the reader out of the main plot. It can be confusing, awkward, and, worst of all, boring. As a writer, you know your characters and plot like no one else. There’s a lot of excitement in that, so the temptation to get it all out there is natural. However, if the information isn’t immediately necessary to the story, it’s usually best to hold off until the reader has a solid grasp on where the story might be heading and what type of characters are taking them there.
- Information dumps – An overload of information can do much of the same damage as jumping the gun can. If not carefully integrated into the main plot, backstory can distance the reader from the world the writer has created. Long excerpts of backstory are not always a bad thing, but are definitely something to be wary of and need to be well thought out before being implemented.
- Overuse of Dialogue – A very simple and somewhat natural way to integrate backstory into the main plot is through dialogue. If two characters are strangers then it makes sense for them to ask each other questions that might lead into flashbacks or a bit of an explanation. The danger is in creating a giant chunk of dialogue that makes the reader feel like they’re being talked at. We don’t want to make the reader feel like they’re listening to a history lecture. So if you do decide to use this technique, consider breaking up the larger pieces and spreading them out in a way that makes the conversation flow naturally and quickly.
In my novel, I like to use meaningful objects and/or dialogue to create flashbacks and reveal characters’ backstories. For example, Holden carries a black journal with him wherever he goes, which is actually a diary containing the history of a different character. The protagonist, Marley, is then able to learn what’s inside by questioning Holden about its content. This is just one easy way to incorporate backstory. Luckily, one of the great things about writing is getting to play around with what style and techniques suit you best.
For more a more in-depth look at backstory, check out The Beauty of Backstory.