How to Write a Successful Backstory
Few stories start with a backstory, unless it is a dull info-dump.
Page one, chapter one, you find characters hurtling through their character arch, or in the middle of solving some side problem that makes up the prologue. For the first few lines to hook you, you need to know who the protagonist is and what she/he wants – even if what they want is a drink of water.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut.
This makes for (potentially) compelling reading because you can imagine yourself in the characters shoes (we’ll delve into this in a later post). What won’t hook you is learning their history from page one. Not only will this slow the pace, it tends to be boring.
In this post, we will discover, not only when to present your character’s backstory, but also how and how much.
If backstories are tricky and/or boring, why have them in the first place?
Creating characters, making them interact, and placing them in certain situations requires some psychology. I don’t mean that you need a degree in it, but you need to know how people act. I’m preaching to the choir on this one – you’re all writers, you watch people, you see, you remember. Also, when you create your characters, you probably build their personalities too, right?
Backstories help you do this.
Remember that everything your character does is goal-oriented. In other words, every action, decision, or even what they say is done with the aim of achieving something. Even if that something is unknown to the character.
This means that you should know the structure of your character’s DNA – so to speak. You need to go deep into their pasts and discover the events that shaped them.
Note: you’ll have to write it all out, so use a trusty notebook.
Key point: I suggest that you do this by hand as this minimizes the temptation to copy/paste this information into your manuscript (I will tell you why this is important shortly).
Determine the following parameters for your character:
- How she/he faces the moral problem of the story*
Now, you need to discover why your character has these parameters. You need to write about their past. (For some, this works in reverse: write the backstory first and then determine the above parameters – this is a good starting point when you are merely planning the novel). Write about everything – from birth to death and (most importantly) what made them who they are.
*The central or moral problem/conflict of the story is what the story is actually about (Truby, 2007). More on this in a later post.
Keep these notes handy when you write. This is the key to understanding who she/he is and what she/he would do in a particular situation.
How much is enough?
There is a difference between what you know yourself and what you reveal to the audience.
The entire history of your character will not make it into the final product. It is important to keep this in mind. Readers don’t need to be told every detail of a character’s life – instead, they want to know every important detail of a character’s life.
Often times, giving just the right amount of information will (1) respect the intelligence of your readers, and (2) allow them to fill in the blanks.
What is an “important detail”?
Remember when I said that there is(are) event(s) in a character’s past that shaped them? Pick the most important one – the life changing, traumatic, “I’ll never be the same”, defining one. This is the backstory you present to your readers.
In that pile of notes you just wrote about your character’s past is a single event that defines them. Yes, just one. Find it. Make it stronger. This is your backstory.
Okay, we already know that plonking this in Chapter 1 slows the pace. It also (most of the time) makes it difficult for the reader to care. You need to make them care about your character by showing them what she/he wants, who they are, what they are doing, etc.
The first few chapters of your manuscript should be devoted to creating empathy and making your readers understand what is at stake and what the central conflict is.
Backstory can come later.
Unfortunately, there is no optimum place to put your backstory, as it depends on the tone, pacing, etc. of your narrative. In my current manuscript, I’m revealing the backstories of my central characters in Part 3 of 4 of the narrative (yes, I use a four-act structure, more on that later). I reveal these scenes here as I want readers to understand why they will do what they are about to do, and I want to cast an unexpected light on recent events.
John Truby (2007) suggests placing the backstory (or flashback) somewhere in the first half of the story as this helps pull the reader forward. Placing backstories too close to the end has a “pulling back” effect which could wreak havoc on your pacing and momentum. (This is a calculated risk I’m taking with my manuscript).
In the end, it is up to you. Try to aim for a place in the narrative flow that will have the greatest impact. This can be tricky.
I think you already know the answer to this: show, don’t tell.
Do not reveal the backstory through exposition. Don’t reveal anything through exposition for that matter.
Place us in the moment. Show us what the character feels, senses, does.
Also, remember I said that important detail is all you need to show. This means that the backstory can be a single scene (or a string of similar, brief scenes) that give us a glimpse into the mind of the character.
Is your character traumatised by watching her brother drown in the sea? Show us this scene. Show us the water, the waves, the storm, and the character’s dread of not getting to their sibling on time. Don’t get hung up on the other details (the windspeed, the water temperature, why they were at sea – unless it’s a plot point).
Put us in the moment. Make us understand.
Over to you
How are you presenting a character’s backstory? Have you found the defining moment?
Please let me know in the comments below.
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Truby, John. 2007. The Anatomy of Story. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: New York