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Backstory: Can You Handle It?

26 Mar 2017

Backstory is almost a swear word in some writing circles, sometimes to the point of actively campaigning to banish it. It bogs down the narrative, say some, if you have too much backstory at the beginning, it usually means you started in the wrong place. This may be true in some cases, but not necessarily. Instead of a ban, why not learn how to use it effectively?


Often, the histories of your characters are not used in a way that intrigues the reader, but rather to inform them, yet using it to tempt your audience further into your web enhances your story and makes it irresistible to put down. In fact, I’d say backstory can be one of the most important tools in the writing desk to hook your reader as oppose to something that will put them off.


The key to this technique lies in two areas:

  1. Avoiding reams and reams of backstory that mostly indulges the author’s love of his own world building and his lack of self-confidence in the reader’s ability to follow the plot if he doesn’t outright explain every inch of it. In many cases, less is more.

  2. Mastering the art of writing in the fictional present day (where the story starts), and sticking to a forward moving plot — i.e. write about events as they unfold, not in retrospective narrative. This relies on the author resisting the temptation to drag the timeline backwards too often in early chapters to provide context and motivation — your characters in action. Show that they work at a major firm rather than Tell the reader, even if only by having them remove their company badge from the coffee table.


In regards to no. 2, this is a strong reason why writers are advised not to Tell, because all-to-often Telling’s default mode involves writing in retrospect, removing the reader from the immediacy of the scene. I won’t go into the intricacies of that today, but just bear in mind that too much jerking backwards and forwards in time can seriously affect the pacing – just as we move forward, there’s that pantomime hook jerking the reader off stage, showing them the strings and pulleys that move the scenery about. It can be very disjointing for the reader, and th