Backstory is anything and everything that happens before your short story or novel opens. Because we need to know our characters’ histories, we think the reader needs to know it too.
Here’s a secret—readers don’t care.
They want action, they want forward movement. Decide how little backstory you can get away with. Make sure you include only important background information. Then see if you can thread it through the story using the following story-telling techniques.
Here are five ways to avoid the awful information dump:
James had been born in Pretoria but left there when he was nine, after his parents divorced. He’d attended Dalton High School and then moved with his Mom to Richards Bay.
You can get away with this for a paragraph or two, but this kind of information dumping is lazy writing. Show, don’t tell.
2. Interior thought
James stood under the jacaranda trees he remembered from his childhood. We used to play under the trees, he thought, waiting for Mom to call us in—if she wasn’t fighting with Dad.
This allows you to bring in setting and we have access to the character’s thoughts.
James rolled down the window of the rental car. He remembered this street. He grew up here. It had changed a lot. He turned towards Miranda Park. Would the playground he used to hide in look the same?
Here we have a lot more action; the narration is more fluid as we absorb the story through the character’s eyes. We feel closer to James as readers.
“I grew up here,” James said. “In Pretoria?” Karli asked. He nodded. “Ja. On this street.” She stretched her legs. “I’d love to see the house you grew up in.”
Dialogue is a great way to deliver information about the past. Here’s another secret—readers love it. It improves the pace of your story.
The Pretoria suburb was the leafy marker between his carefree childhood and the raw reality of his folks’ divorce.
This works too. Short and sweet. We have a lot of information in a short space of time. Now we can move on to the action.
Always start your story as close to the moment of tension, conflict or change as you can. What happened in the past is only relevant if it has changed your character and is important for the reader to know at some point. If you have to continually explain your story to the reader, you’re going to lose them at some point. They may even move on to the next book on their night stand.
- Five Lifelines for Writers with Deadlines
- 3 Ways To Use Setting In Your Novel
- Dire Consequences – How to get your characters into trouble
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