First of all, what is backstory?
The backstory is anything and everything that happened before your short story or novel. Some authors and writers think the reader needs to know what happened before the story starts.
Backstory might show another layer to the protagonist but too much hopping back and forth to explain origins can become tiresome. Readers want action, they want forward movement. Decide how little backstory you can get away with and make sure you include only important background information.
Below are five ways to avoid backstory dumps and threading it through the story to keep readers turning pages.
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.
Exposition in backstory is risky. Too much telling feels bland since we experience the novel as the present moment.
Aaron was born in Forster but left there when he was nine after his parents divorced. He’d attended the Great Lakes College and then moved with his mother to Shoal Bay.
You can get away with this for a paragraph or two, but this kind of information dumping is lazy writing.
2. Interior thought
Aaron stood under the blossoming wattle-brush trees he remembered from his childhood. We used to play under the trees, he thought, waiting for mum to call us in—if she wasn’t fighting with dad.
This allows you to bring in setting and we have access into the character’s thoughts.
Aaron rolled down the window of the rental car. He remembered this street. He grew up here. It had changed a lot. He turned towards John Wright Park before the bridge into Forster. 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,” Aaron said. “In Forster?” Heather asked.
He nodded. “Yeah, on this street.”
She stretched her legs in the back seat. “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.
Forster was the leafy marker between his carefree childhood and the raw reality of his parent’s 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.
Telling character backstory is sometimes necessary to show why your character has a specific motivation or mindset. Yet it’s important to learn how to write backstory that will not bog your novel down in constant harking back to prior events that occurred before the present time of your narrative.
If you have to continually explain your story to the reader, you’re going to lose them at some point.
3 thoughts on “Five Ways To Avoid Backstory Dumps”
Good points. I find a lot of short story writers think they need to explain everything about their character’s background, and their stories grow fatty as a result. The truth is, the reader doesn’t need to know the protagonist’s life story, only what is relevant to the crisis of this particular story.
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I have seen that in short stories and I agree. The backstory dumps take up valuable space for more important and relevant writing.
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