Backstory in Your Novel: Getting It Right

nuclear explosion, the problem with backstoryTwo mistakes writers make when it comes to backstory are:

  1. Putting it in chapter one
  2. Using too much at a time

What is backstory?

Tim Tomlinson, in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, tells us backstory is:

“…information in the story’s or character’s past, and it can be parceled out effectively in the narration as the story progresses.”

It is not equal to flashback. A flashback is a fully dramatized scene, written like any other scene in your story, but one that occurred in the character’s past.

Backstory is a tidbit of history that offers the reader deeper knowledge of the story or of the character. We begin to understand why a character acts the way he/she does in the present story.

Here’s an example from one of my WIPs. The last sentence is backstory.

Ten yards from the house, I stopped short. A sea of emotions washed over me, none of them good. I felt like an ant invading a palace banquet. What crazy impulse had overtaken me that day at the office? I’d been bucking the odds all my life, first in the orphanage, then as a woman Marine, and then with a new career at the age of thirty-two.

Only one sentence. It reveals a lot about my female protagonist and speaks directly to why earlier in the story she impulsively quit her job.

Like flashbacks, ensure this information is essential to the story. Make every word earn its place on the page.

If you’re giving pages of backstory all at once, you’re giving too much. It stops the present action of the story while you spin those pages of history.

Longer backstory can be done, and has been by writers like Dean Koontz and Stephen King, but it takes focused, sharp writing. I recommend avoiding longer portions until you’re skill as a writer is finely honed.

As Tomlinson states, parcel out your backstory. Think of it like you would the red pepper you sprinkle on a slice of pizza, a little here, a little there. And always after you’ve given us some action.

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.

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