Don’t Get Bogged Down with Backstory
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Don’t Get Bogged Down with Backstory

Have you ever read a book or manuscript where backstory bogged down the action? In one I read, backstory was blatantly put in dialogue and felt very unnatural. Who talks like that? In another, the backstory’s purpose was to get the reader back into the world of book one, but it wasn’t personal to the character. Or at least I couldn’t tell how it was personal. All of the information was overwhelming. And I didn’t want to read on.

Let’s talk about various ways to NOT include backstory.

The Info Dump

Written like a character interview or a summary, it tells the reader the character’s history. This is how such an item might have been written for my book ALONE. The book was written in first person, so this is also in first person:

Quote Don’t Get Bogged Down with Backstory - Elmore LeonardAfter the death of my mother, I learned how to be sole cook and bottle washer before I was sixteen. After graduating from high school, I started my first job as a housekeeper when my father remarried. I’m twenty-five now and have completed college, but have continued working as a live-in housekeeper. I love running houses and doing all the cooking.

This past summer I was looking for a new job as a cook/housekeeper for several months when I heard that Mark Andrews, my favorite bestselling author, needed one. I jumped at the chance—applied and was accepted, packed up my possessions, and moved from California to Colorado.

All those things are true for my main character, but not an exciting way to start out a story. In the book, it’s not till Chapter Six the reader learns how Cecelia became a housekeeper. In Chapter One, she talks about moving from California to Colorado, but it’s in the midst of an argument with her new employer, versus a recitation of facts.

Worldbuilding is also something that gets dumped on the reader. This is especially something seen in fantasy or sci-fi. There’s so much about the world, how it is different from the here and now. It’s all about the technology or the magic. It’s an introduction to the society, the setting, the time period, the culture. Sometimes we don’t even meet any characters. (Sorry, I can’t write an example.) But sometimes you hear it at the beginning of movies—that voiceover with a variety of scenes flashing by. It always makes me want to say, “Get on with it!” And even if I like the movie, it’s the part I fast forward on a DVD or in digital format.

So sprinkle your backstory in. If your reader doesn’t need to know it now, don’t include it. Show us the culture and setting instead of telling us about it. Let us see the character interacting, struggling, doing—we’ll be more interested.

Unnatural Dialogue

If your character is saying something to another character that the second character already knows, it’s likely to sound odd. For example:

“You know how I was working on my math homework, Mom? Well, it’s done,” Stephen said. “You said I could go to Eric’s when I was finished, so now I’m going.”

That doesn’t sound very kidlike. A kid would be more likely to shout out, “Mom, I’m done! Off to Eric’s now.” Stephen slammed the math book shut and dashed out the door.

See how I worked in the backstory with a bit of action?

Or if your character’s dialogue is all about getting information out—not a conversation or conflict, it’ll sound forced. Here’s an example:

“Dan lost his job two months ago” Lisa said. “He got fired for arguing with the boss about some ethical question. And now his unemployment is about to run out. But his wife doesn’t know he’s not working. He gets up every morning, dresses like usual, and goes out the door at the same time. I think he goes to an internet café and does job hunting. Or maybe he plays computer games all day. I don’t know, but it’s all going to come crashing down when he doesn’t have any more money.”

It’s a lecture. It’s telling. Even if there is interaction with another character, it doesn’t change what this character has to say. It doesn’t move the story forward. Nothing is happening besides talk.

Think of it this way. When I meet a new-to-me person, I might shake her hand and introduce myself. Tell her a few snippets about myself and ask her questions. But I don’t go on and on with my backstory.

I’m a writer. I have two daughters—both are married. I have three grandsons. My husband and I have lived here for almost three and a half years. Before that we lived in Vancouver, WA, and Olathe, Kansas, then the Seattle area, and before that New Jersey and Denver. Of course, we lived in the Seattle area before. We’ve also lived in Eugene, Albany, Corvallis, and Klamath Falls, Oregon. We have a cat—we adopted her in 2021.

AGHHH! The woman would probably slip away from me as quickly as she could.

Conversely, if you include snippets of backstory in dialogue naturally, and things are happening in the story, no one will notice the backstory.

Don’t Get Bogged Down with Backstory - Boring bookWe find information about characters, and each other, gradually. For example, today I found out that a long-distance friend had hurt her knee right after her husband died. When we’ve talked, we’ve talked about her recent loss. That was what was at the forefront of our minds. It was only when I was checking up on her via a text, that she added the knee injury to her list of frustrations. Do I feel bad I didn’t know earlier? No. I didn’t need to know. And today was the appropriate time to express my sympathy for that on top of everything else.

It’s Not Relevant

Make sure any backstory you include is relevant and comes across naturally. Or as Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Like my list above of all the places I’ve lived. Boring!

Backstory needs to be relevant to the current choices and actions of your characters. A novel is not a history book of your character’s entire life.

“Backstory should always be triggered by something that’s happening in the story present. Think about how your memories pop up in your own life. They are usually triggered by something you see, hear, feel, etc.” – Savannah Gilbo

I remember watching the opening of the movie, Thirteen Lives.  The sights and the sounds of the Thai language took me right back to my visits to Thailand. Another movie, I watched many years ago, I won’t watch again because of personal trauma that happened at the same time. It triggers those memories. However, I don’t think about these experiences all the time and unless it is relevant to the story, your character shouldn’t either.

“Too much information from the past slows down the story. Instead, use backstory to color your characters’ present actions. You keep your readers engaged by moving the story forward. You move your story through character behavior, not long descriptive passages about what happened in the past.” – Zara Altair

“Although backstory is critically important to the author, who must know his or her characters thoroughly, the reader only needs sparing, critical details – enough to ensure the character’s motivation is clear.” – Susan Forest

Related Links

Sue Ford writes for adults as SM Ford and for children under her maiden name, Susan Uhlig. She’s an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature for two of the magazine courses. You can find her on her website: susanuhlig.com and on Twitter: @susanuhlig.        
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