This blog from Helping Writers Become Authors (K.M. Weiland) compares two movie adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel (one of my favorite books/movies; I love Leslie Howard!) to discuss some points of when and how to best convey your character’s backstory.
Here’s my take on how and when to include backstory. This topic also answers question like: Do I need a prologue? and How can I avoid info-dump?
First, let’s define. Backstory is the part of the character’s life story that occurs before the story you are currently penning them in. Picture a timeline of your character’s life story.
There’s the story timeline, that’s the events of the character’s life that you are currently telling. Now, the backstory is events that happened before the story timeline but that are RELEVANT sources of the decision-making, the phobias, the “wounds” your character has and will spend some of the story timeline emotionally growing and healing as a result.
In the example shown, you’ll notice that I have notes that the person dated from adolescence into young adulthood and they had a serious relationship and a breakup (and job loss) that occur just before and just at the beginning of the story opening. Maybe picture this guy at a bar, drowning himself in beer with his best friend as the story opens.
The events a character journeyed through learning about themselves and others in their life before the story officially starts is their backstory. These events and what he learned about himself as a result are the causes WHY he will do what he does in the present story being told. His bad breakup caused him to lose his temper at work and he lost his job. As a result he tries to separate work and personal life. It is the context WHY he tells his best friend he’s “never getting serious again,” rooted in the way his serious relationship ended and how it hurt him emotionally. His dating history is also going to be the source of triggers for land-mine moments by the new, prospective partner: things they will say or do that remind the character of his horrible experience.
When and How Much
It is that last consideration which governs how much and when to include the backstory details — at the time the trigger(s) or identical or inverted actions occur. If the love interest says something in exactly the same way (uses the same words or body language), the character will react early in the story as they had when the previous partner did it.
If processing happens, either a healing conversation or a confrontation around the reaction, then later on, a similar incident can be the inversion, where the character now responds differently – usually more healthfully – to the incident.
And in the writing itself, you should not belabor backstory. You’ll mention enough about it. “He had a sudden flash of Ann telling him the same thing six months ago.” Then you should get back into relating the present storyline, describing his actions, his words, and his feelings now – as echoes of his reactions in the past.
This is the secret to backstory: Detail it only as much as is needed to inform the reader of the current story as to the context of the character’s actions, reactions, and decisions.
Generally, you should be able to limit backstory to a few scattered phrases or lines here and there. Seldom will there be paragraphs of backstory in the middle of a scene. Aside from being info-dump, it slows the dramatic pace of the story that matters: the present one you’re telling.
Flashbacks are a specific type of backstory – and they should only be included if EVERY detail of the flashback will be relevant to some specific trigger moment of the character’s interaction in the present story timeline.
This means a flashback should be positioned as close as possible to the trigger moment. Whether it goes before or after the trigger scene will be based on (1) what information the reader needs to have context for the conflict in a forthcoming scene (therefore the flashback would goes before the scene in question) or (2) whether the character will gain perspective from reviewing the conflict scene in light of the flashback memory (flashback goes after the scene in question).
There is one other flashback scenario — the dread scene. If a character is planning a confrontation and afraid or concerned it may turn out similarly to a past event, then the flashback scene comes first, usually in the form of a toss-n-turn nightmare or dream, and the character will “work on other options” to avoid the same mistakes/problems as a result of reviewing their past failure.
But the flashback scene should only be long enough to reveal enough detail necessary to give context. It should not go on for pages and pages. If you feel that a really long flashback is “vitally important” that should probably be the story you should be telling instead of the current one.
Either that or you have the prequel already planned, so go ahead and write it already.
I hope you’ve found this discussion of backstory helpful. Happy writing!
If you have other questions about writing or editing which you’d like for me to discuss in this blog or on the live workshop I do, email me.