Writing Advice: Backstory

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Backstory. It can help give your characters depth and motivation, but sometimes it can bog down a piece of writing. If you devote a chapter, or even a portion of a chapter to backstory about your character’s life, occupation, or family it can come off as an unnecessary deviation for the reader. Backstory can be done well, though. When slipped into dialogue or the exposition of a scene, backstory can do many good things for your story. But when done badly, backstory can come off as what the kids like to call an “infodump.”

For me, backstory has always been a struggle, especially when writing in a longform format, such as a novel. Where do you fit in those details you’ve already devised about your characters and the people who surround them? How do you casually mention someone’s 10-year relationship with an abusive partner when you’re also trying to write a well-oiled plot? The answer, in general, is to use your backstory in moderation.

In a post on Chuck Wendig’s amazing writing blog, Terrible Minds, author Susan Spann included backstory in her 25 Things You Need to Know About Writing Mysteries. Susan writes, “DO NOT WRITE BACKSTORY. No, seriously. Don’t. Not directly, anyway. Backstory is the cayenne pepper of the writer’s literary spice drawer. A little, added at the proper time, enhances the novel and gives it zing. Use too much and readers dump the entire thing in the garbage bin.” 

I think the key piece of advice in Susan Spann’s tidbit here is that you should not directly write backstory. Instead, pepper it in here and there in pertinent scenes where it makes sense to mention those backstory items. If your character has come out of a long-term abusive relationship, and is then suddenly having feelings for someone new, you’ll want to mention their romantic history. There’s no need to go into detail about what kinds of flowers were and were not bought, but you should give enough emotional heft to what happened to convey the importance of the new relationship to your readers.

Make sense? Then go forth and spread your backstory sparingly, writers!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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