keep the boring out of your backstory.

| Monday, May 9, 2011
Today's Tune: The Cave

Integrating backstory into a storyline can be a daunting task. It can feel info-dumpy or grind a moving plot to a halt. So what do you do when backstory is essential to your story but you don't want to make your audience feel like you're dragging them through a boring-but-necessary lecture?

Here are a few tactics for incorporating backstory without taking the reader out of the main plot.

- Think beyond dialogue. Dialogue is the easy go-to for backstory -- you have one character tell another character about past events. This can be done well, but it has a tendency to get unwieldy and boring unless it's really riveting stuff. Unfortunately, the delivery doesn't tend to leave much room for tension. If you're sticking with sharing backstory via dialogue, find ways to break it up or make the scene more interesting. Have the characters talk while performing a relating action. Don't let someone blather for large blocks of text without a break. Break up the blocks with action or other character comments. Keep the backstory firmly rooted in the current story.

- Careful with flashbacks. Yes, they can be done well, but more often than not they're just a convenient way to introduce information. If you utilize them, try to find a unique way to do so. Something beyond *poof* convenient memory-sharing time.

- Feed the audience backstory in bite-sized increments. Only give them the information they absolutely need in order to feel grounded at any given time. Don't dump it all in one long rush. Do this at points where it feels natural and organic. Keep dialogue trimmed down and to the point. Avoid explaining something into the ground. You need to reveal enough to avoid confusion, but trust your readers to be able to work out the more obvious points for themselves.

- Involve the protagonist directly in the backstory. Don't literally send them back in time unless that's how you want to roll, but create a way for them to "live" the backstory. An excellent example of this comes from Harry Potter: the Pensieve. A device that stores memories and allows people to literally immerse themselves in and view said memories as if they were there? Brilliant. Harry not only got his backstory, he got to be involved in it.

- Let it come out via action or discovery. They're exploring and come across a diary detailing the sordid history of the family they're staying with. The creepy spaceship has a holographic log of past events to look through. Video surveillance. Tape recording. Webcam. Tear in a painting that reveals a map behind it. A favorite of mine from Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes: the protagonist gets fed one tiny bit of backstory at a time via letters she's not allowed to open until she performs a certain task. The possibilities are endless. It's just important to make sure that whichever discovery/action you choose genuinely makes sense within your plot and isn't a mere coincidence/convenience.

- Somebody heard an urban legend/scary story/old wive's tale that's eerily pertinent to the current situation. Okay, this one can very easily become cliché, but it can also be done well. Things to avoid: cultural appropriation for the sake of mysticism, a story that's too convenient, a story that's so ambiguous it doesn't make sense, half-assing a story for the sake of making it fit into the plot. If you're going to do this, put thought into it and develop it well.

- Make sharing the backstory integral to the plot. Does a detective need to interview someone to get the details of a cold case? Does this information need to come out in order to make the plot move? Make the backstory and its delivery so important, so interesting, and so full of tension that the audience can't help but be glued to the pages waiting to hear about it.

Can you think of other instances of backstory introduction that you felt worked really well? Why?


{ Mohamed Mughal } at: May 9, 2011 at 10:08 AM said...

Literary cubism seems to provide (and possibly overcome) some of the challenges of backstory, especially when applied w/o stricture to temporal linearity.

{ LV Cabbie } at: May 9, 2011 at 12:12 PM said...

Yeah, this is really tough, especially when you write historical fiction like I do.
Often things that happen far away have grave consequences for the characters in the present. How do you deal with that?
I hope I've found a reasonable solution but it's always difficult.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 9, 2011 at 12:54 PM said...

@Mohamed - Oh, that's an awesome suggestion! Thank you for sharing!

@LV - It *is* difficult, for sure. You just have to find that right balance :)

{ Old Kitty } at: May 9, 2011 at 2:25 PM said...

I'm a sinner with o/d-ing on backstories with my current wip. It's painful to cut out cos I love the histories behind the characters!! But that's just me being self-indulgent!! LOL!! I've had enough red marks and many exclamation points from my crit readers to know that they ain't working! LOL! Take care

{ Magan } at: May 9, 2011 at 4:08 PM said...

Oh the backstory, such a necessary evil. But you gave some really good tips that I will have to remember for my next WIP

{ Stina Lindenblatt } at: May 9, 2011 at 9:03 PM said...

Great post. Flashbacks aren't easy. Some authors do them really well, but you don't realize how easy they are to screw up until your CP tells you. :P

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 9, 2011 at 10:29 PM said...

@Kitty - Oh, don't I know it! Cutting that stuff can be hard, but most of the time it really is us being self-indulgent. Save it for yourself anyway :)

@Magan - Thanks, I hope they help!

@Stina - Hahahahaha so true.

{ Caledonia Lass } at: May 10, 2011 at 3:25 AM said...

You know, back story and history are one of my really bad areas. I tend to lump so much in there I bore the ones trying to help me. My problem is, I have a whole, huge fantasy world I have created and want to share every last detail with the reader. It is really hard for me to hold back the really good information.

{ Susan Kaye Quinn } at: May 10, 2011 at 6:50 AM said...

I like discovery best, as a reader and a writer. It's tough to hold out until then, but "trusting the reader" is great advice! :)

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 10, 2011 at 9:35 AM said...

@Caledonia Lass - Having a huge fantasy area with tons of mythos can be rough, for sure. I think high fantasy readers are a little more lenient when it comes to reading about it, though :)

@Susan - Thanks! I like discovery, too, but I also like to play around with backstory. I've done micro-flashbacks, where a character sees something that triggers a quick 2-5 sentence memory and then they're back in the present. It can work pretty well!

{ cookie } at: May 10, 2011 at 3:23 PM said...

I'm working on fixing my back story now. Before I had it shoved in my MS as flashbacks, but I'm remedying that by cutting them up and interspersing them when necessary.

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