Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Backstory: When should you put it in your novel?

What is Backstory? According to James Scott Bell, Backstory is "any account of events that take place before the main narrative." Bell also thinks that when you write, Backstory must be handled with extreme care.
While the Backstory of characters in a writer's head can really help to deepen the narrative (i.e. gives the reader more understanding of where the characters come from and the motivations behind some of their actions), it can also slow down the pace of the unfolding story and halt the action.

As a writer, do you ever find that you are dumping a lot of Backstory into the first few chapters of your writing? Do you feel it is necessary to get all of this information out so that your readers will understand your character better?  Is there any way to  hold off on plugging in all of this Backstory . . .  can you disperse it throughout your book or short story? And what parts of the Backstory are absolutely essential?

For example a piece of writing may start like this:

Sonya screamed at the oncoming car that was about to hit her. She had only been shopping for groceries for her ill grandmother. Her grandmother was her very best friend in the world. She had lived with her grandmother since she was six years old because her mother and father had died in a car crash. Sonya and her grandmother did everything together--planted flowers in the garden, listened to the radio together, baked. In fact, Sonya had been shopping for flour at the grocery store because she wanted to bake her ill grandmother a batch of the hazelnut cookies she loved . . . (etc, etc).

In the above example, is it really essential that the reader know everything about Sonya's relationship with her grandmother, at least at this point? The Backstory stunts the action which is Sonya facing her death at an oncoming vehicle. On the other hand, based on this example, are there any key elements of Sonya's Backstory you can see that might be worth revealing in the opening paragraph?

How do you handle Backstory in your writing?


  1. That's a great example of backstory that doesn't need to be there. I actually cringed a little, because I used to write that way!

  2. I get very frustrated when I'm faced with the entire life story of a character straight off. Sonya's facing a car; she's going to die just like her parents - argh! Everything else can be shown later, when she gets home to her grandmother, for example.

    On the other hand, it is possible that I don't reveal enough. I write from the POV of expecting my reader to know what I know about a character, if that makes sense.

  3. I think backstory is one of the hardest things to handle, either in fiction or memoir. Great topic for the challenge.

  4. It's so difficult to find the balance between what needs to be revealed and what doesn't. Sometimes I wish that with writing there was just a right and wrong way to do things in terms of Backstory (and other things), but there's no right or wrong, just what works and what doesn't, what resonates and what doesn't.

  5. I'm slowly learning to pepper it in throughout the story. It's so hard not to dump it all in one place.

    Happy Monday!

    My A-Z

  6. Very good question, since I'm struggling with backstory in the MS I'm editing. I didn't want to info-dump, so I ended up alternating chapters between past and present, but now that means close to 50% of the book is backstory. So, I'm in the process of taking those chapters out and sprinkling in the past where necessary. Great topic!