If you’ve read my earlier post, Backstory Basics, then you know I’m a sucker for a good backstory. Welcome to part two. Backstory is a perfect way to reveal character, create suspense, and tie together events. But that begs the question, how much is too much backstory? How do you decide what’s important enough to put in the final product? Let’s discuss.
When backstory is used is just as important as what information is revealed, so info-drop wisely. Too soon and it might lower emotional impact or kill the element of surprise. Too late in the game and it may feel irrelevant or confusing. A character’s past is what made them who the reader loves (or loves to hate), and that makes their history beautiful. Let readers settle into a character and get to know them as they are before taking time out for a flashback.
Also consider how to go about info-dropping. The use of dialogue is an easy and subtle way to hint at backstory, but if you plan on showing rather than telling, it’s important to look at the how. Will you seamlessly weave childhood memories into narration, or cut away from the action the second after the gun fires? (Two books I love that do an outstanding job of building momentum through backstory are Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.)
Over the last few months I have gotten back to writing my novel in-progress. I thought it was done and ready for the editing stages, but after two rounds of editing I realized it didn’t have quite the right emotional punch. My problem? Too little backstory, too late.
Don’t Be a Drama Queen
Be a queen bee. Be a dancing queen. DON’T be a drama queen (guilty as charged). Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of this when it comes to wrangling up a powerful backstory. Let me explain. When I say I love backstory, I usually mean the dark, heart-wrenching, So That’s Why You’re a Douche Canoe kind. Basically, I focus on villains, like my novel’s main man, Rumpelstiltskin. But not every piece of character history needs to be gritty and life-altering, and actually, it shouldn’t be.
To create a realistic character we as writers must look at them from every angle. So by all means, reveal the tragic past, but don’t forget to make them human. Unless your character is a straight up psychopath, there’s going to be something that makes them smile besides dastardly deeds. Even an antagonist has a fondest memory, a favorite joke, a personal quirk. Maybe the guy likes puns. Whatever it is, remember not all backstory has to be drama-filled. Small moments matter too.
Love it or Leave it
It’s the moment of truth. You have created THE ultimate character history, from his first steps to this exact moment. So, how much do you keep? What’s most important? I’m of the writerly persuasion who sometimes ends up with enough backstory to warrant a whole freaking prequel, but I don’t want to write a prequel, so instead I have to go panning for gold.
First look for the pieces you love most. If you’re not ecstatic about your work, then readers won’t be either. If the parts you love most are irrelevant, try to revise it in a way that includes the information your readers need. If all else fails, keep what you created and recycle it for another character, another story. We’re writers, after all. Artists and wordsmiths! There are always more stories to tell.
Question of the Week: What’s you’re favorite kind of backstory?
For more on backstory, check out this article by Writer’s Digest