Backstory, or How To Avoid Boring Your Reader To Death


I’m watching you. (Photo credit: Leszek.Leszczynski)

Fucking backstory. You’ve got your story cruising along, hitting points A to B to C, and all of a sudden someone does something unusual and we have to know why. Why do they get all weird at the idea of marriage? Why does the sight of a carnival carousal make them sad?* Why is the Tooth Fairy stalking them with a pair of pliers? And you have to answer those questions or the rest of the scene doesn’t make sense. Hell, the story might not even make sense. So you have to stop what you’re doing and drop in some backstory. Slows everything down if you don’t do it right.

But it’s necessary. It creates relationships, sets expectations, and makes it clear exactly why the protagonist is deathly afraid of marmosets. It makes the character a real person, with a past, and not just a place-filler because all this shit has to happen to someone.

So how does a writer deal with the absolutely necessary but sometimes pace-killing revelations about the character’s past?

1. Make it short. Seriously. I don’t need to know every detail. Just throw in what absolutely needs to be there for the reader to not get lost, and move on. You can write it out for your own benefit if you like. I do this a lot, just so I know what the details of the steroid-addicted marmoset attack on the protagonist’s childhood campsite actually were. To make damn sure there’s a reason they fear the furry little bastards.
And then I go back and cut. Ruthlessly.

2. Stick and move. This works especially well for the horrible shit we do to our characters. If someone’s choices are informed by something traumatic in their past, chances are they’re not going to sit around and dwell on every detail. No, those moments are going to smack them in the back of the head in times of stress—there and gone in a second. Chuck Wendig’s Bait Dog has a number of good examples of this technique. The main character, Atlanta, never deliberately thinks about what happened to her, but the reader gets flashes of it whenever she’s upset. Not much, either. Just enough to get a sense of what happened, and the emotional impact it had.

3. Do not info dump. If you make me stop in the middle of an interesting bit of story to go back and trudge through fifteen pages of the protagonist’s childhood, I will stop reading. And then I will mail you a steroid-jacked marmoset.

4.Be cautious of…. Using a diary, a dream, a conversation with a perfect stranger, a counseling session, a first date, or any other contrived way of showing backstory. Not saying they can’t be used, but for the love and honour of Velociraptor Jesus, make sure it’s part of the goddamn story. The main story, that is. It shouldn’t be an excuse to get the backstory out and in the open. Also, no one ever randomly tells all their secrets to a stranger at the bus station. Unless they’re crazy. Or drunk. Which are both options, but should once again be used with caution and common sense. When in doubt, don’t. Just don’t.

*I wrote this as a throw away, but now that I think about it, there is something melancholy about carousals.