A study in backstories

Well well well, would you look who disappeared for three weeks? Tsk tsk, this won’t do at all… *get in time machine* *sets destination to last week*

~*~one week earlier~*~

Hi guys! Today we’re talking backstory, and specifically, how to naturally introduce it into the story. Writing backstories is a whole different animal, so right now, I’m going to focus on what to do once you already have it.

 

  1. The readers need to want to hear it. If they don’t care about the character, they don’t care about the backstory. Yes, backstory can strengthen your attachment to a character, but if they aren’t appealing without it, why would you want to hear about it? Or if the character still feels like a stranger, or at best an acquaintance, the reader won’t be ready to hear their deepest, darkest secrets. Forge the bond between character and reader, then spring the backstory on everyone. A backstory is often a kind of infodump, which- NO DON’T RUN AWAY IT ISN’T A BAD WORD- okay get back here. As I was saying, your backstory could technically be an infodump, but an infodump is only evil if the reader is bored by it or feels disconnected from the story. If they’re on the edge of their seat, begging you to tell them, they’ll happily sit through an infodump if it’s entertaining enough.

 

  1. It’s got to come into focus naturally. This is a little thing I like to call the “hint chain,” and while I use it for all kinds of reveals, it’s especially nice for the backstory reveal. (I know this is called foreshadowing by normal people, but I like to have the visual of a chain.)The Hint Chain is a sequence of references to the backstory, weaved naturally into the story. The chain is hidden sometimes, and you can only put the whole thing together in hindsight, but the reader needs to sense the chain is there, and is going somewhere. You need two kinds of “links” for the Hint Chain: satisfying, and not satisfying. Satisfying hints explain themselves, for example, a character gets a letter from their father, and explains that this surprises them because he hasn’t tried to contact them in years. The readers are happy with their new knowledge of the character, but also more curious than ever. Not satisfying hints have to be used carefully, because too much will be frustrating. But sprinkling in an unexplained phobia, an emotional reaction to a certain song, or anything that makes you go, “hm, there’s something going on I don’t know about,” will keep things interesting.

 

  1. Why and where does the backstory get revealed? No one in real life just throws their tragic backstories at strangers. Well, maybe some do, but for sake of convenience we’re going to focus on the majority, who like to keep the things that really bug us safely tucked away. I mean, I haven’t talked about the salamander incident in years… *ahem* what was I saying? So, just as important as how your characters reveal backstories is why they do. What pushes them to do this? Is their past catching up to them? Do they feel they need to justify their actions to another character? Often, the backstory is split up into parts which get revealed at different points in the story. Maybe a less hard-hitting part is mentioned in the first act, but it takes the Dark Moment of Doom to get the most tragic part into the open.

 

  1. If you’re employing a long flashback, don’t let the readers get away with emotionally distancing themselves from it. Keep them engaged by mentioning things you know they care about: characters, foreshadowing you’ve been holding over their heads, trying up loose ends. Make it a satisfying, not a boring, thing. Keep the emotion you want to convey in mind, so it won’t be dry. For example, the peace of a happy childhood, and then the frustration and fear of having it ripped away. The sting of betrayal. The sadness of a loved one’s death. You’re not just telling information, you’re showing why a character is the way they are.

 

  1. If you have a character telling the story themselves, don’t slip out of their voice. If they’re a jokester, they won’t become Sir Serious Face for a chapter of backstory and then snap back to normal. They can be more serious, especially if they’re emotionally affected by what they’re saying. But they’re still themselves. Their mannerisms stay, and since they’re telling the story from their point of view, you have to take into account what they would focus most on. They’ll be biased, for sure, and will certainly take into account who they’re telling their story to. Which brings me to an important point: who are they talking to? Are they trying to talk sense into a younger character by sharing their past mistakes? Do they finally feel safe enough in their circle of friends to talk freely? PLEASE NOTE: the character cannot break the forth wall and tell the reader directly if this isn’t a pattern throughout the story. If it’s supposed to be, say, a grandfather leaving behind his life story for his grandkids, yeah, go ahead, let the him take the readers aside and say, “there’s something you need to know.” I actually like that a lot, personally. But if the reader is not addressed throughout the book, just don’t. You can have flashbacks for sure, but the character can’t turn to the reader and fill them in if they don’t know they have a reader.

 

  1. Be very sparing with dream sequences and prologues. I am of the opinion that the occasional dream, as long as it isn’t cliche and is interesting to read, isn’t evil, and prologues are far from bad- *collective scream from the audience*- if they aren’t just one long infodump. But the problem with these tools is that they can push the reader away from the story, with just isn’t fun for anyone. So be aware of these dangers when writing, and make sure your dream sequence or prologue really needs to be there, is just as interesting to read as any other scene, and there isn’t a more direct way to deliver the information.

 

So here we are! I hope this was helpful, or at least my salty ramblings from too many botched backstories I’ve seen (and written!) were fun. I need to get back to my real time before I rip a hole in the fabric of time and space or accidentally erase myself from existence or get attacked by Daleks. (you know, the normal hazards of writing.)

2 thoughts on “A study in backstories

  1. Ah yes, I sooo agree!

    For my first novel I ever wrote (and never named…) when I was ten(?) there was this point where a girl was stranded in a desert after two black riders (yes yes. LotR) burned down her house and kidnapped her parents. And then these two guys are sneaking through and see her and attack her. Then she just suddenly starts sprouting everything in the most matter-of-fact way. *cringes* It’s even worse than it sounds. XD XD

    *sighs*

    All that to say

    PREACH IT NC 😉

    Like

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