In defense of backstory.

Okay, back again, to defend the poor and the misjudged. 

And up on the stand is backstory. Lovely backstory.

How many of you sent off your writing for the first time to a critique partner and got it back with chunks of paragraphs highlighted with the comment – backstory/info dump. And then you learned better? **raises hand** I have.

But backstory is so crucial to an intriguing heartfelt story, even if only a fraction of it makes it into your story. 

What is backstory?

To me, it’s all that background information. Memories. Family history. Events that happened last week or last year. Secrets. Traumatic childhoods.

Backstory is important because…

  • It helps you know your character so he/she can respond and make decisions that make sense.
  • It deepens your character so you create three dimensional characters.
  • It creates intrigue by dropping in hints here and there.
  • Small memories – that are relevant to the story – make a character feel real to the reader.
  • Small memories – that are relevant to the story – show the bond between characters or between a character and a place.
  • Small memories – that are relevant to the story – create empathy in the reader.

If you took out all the backstory from your story, or you didn’t take the time to create backstory, most likely, your story will lack intrigue and your characters will be flat.

Finding the delicate balance of the what, when, where, why, and the how of backstory is all a part of the writing journey. And it varies from genre to genre. I’m still learning.

So, backstory is your friend, right? What did I miss? Any tips to writing backstory?

Click here for an excellent post about the nuts and bolts of writing backstory.

And Thursday, I’ll be defending description. And on Friday I’ll post my version of Writing Compelling Characters for The Great Blogging Experiment. And last time I checked there were over 100 bloggers participating! Can’t wait.

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14 Responses to In defense of backstory.

  1. Quinn September 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    Love this post! Backstory is so important — even if it doesn’t make it into the novel. It makes the characters who they are and influences all of their actions in the novel.

    I know that J.K. Rowling has notebooks filled with the backstories for all of her characters, however minor. Most of that never made it into the books, but it helped to bring her characters to life.

  2. Alicia September 22, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    Great post. I find that depending on which story I’m telling the balance of the backstory comes more naturally than with others. Thoughts on that?

  3. Andrea September 22, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    I find that too, Alicia. For some stories, it’s much easier for me to weave in the backstory. Other times, when I can see that I’m creating an info dump, I need to stop and think about the possible places where the information belongs, so I can spread it out through the story.

    • Laura September 22, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

      Quinn – And you can tell with JKR’s characters that they were fully developed.

      Alicia – I agree. More stories it comes more naturally. I think a story where the backstory plays a larger part in the plot, it’s easier to weave it in. Other times, it’s harder to find the spots where it seems natural to add it. I think it just takes experimenting and cp feedback.

      Andrea – Over time, info dumps have been easier to spot. I struggle if anythign with the opposite – not including enough because I’m afraid the reader will get bored.

  4. Kelly Polark September 22, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    Yes, backstory. I have a spot in my first chapter where I need to reassess where to put the backstory. Probably further into the book.
    I keep hearing about the blogging experiment! I need to check it out!

  5. Patti Nielson September 22, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

    My problem is learning to pace the back story and not put it in all at once, but I do think you need it to get a sense of the charactes. Great post.

  6. TK Richardson September 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Great post! Finding the right balance with back story is so important. 🙂

    • Laura September 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

      Thanks for commenting everyone! I’m still learning the best placement of backstory and telling. But used in the right way, I believe it really makes the difference if someone keeps turning the page or not! I’m going to be on the hunt for good examples in books I read.

  7. Carole Anne Carr September 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Interesting question. Looking at my children’s books I see that in my present one my back story is the first paragraph, and that’s about it. :0)

  8. Susan R. Mills September 22, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    I think backstory is important, but it should be limited to small doses at a time. Great post!

  9. Laura Marcella September 22, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    It definitely depends on the genre. For example, I’ve noticed that fantasy novels can get away with more backstory in the beginning. Since it’s an entirely new world, readers need that info or they’d be totally confused! Fantasy readers probably expect that information in the beginning so they’re more forgiving of backstory.

    I’m still learning how to find the balance, too! Thanks for sharing the link. 🙂

    • Laura September 22, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

      Thanks Susan! And yes, small doses. I think unless it takes the form of a flashback and is more important to the plot. But I think that starts veering away from what most people consider backstory.

      Laura – Yeah, sometimes high fantasy needs that information about the world. And done right, it’s barely noticeable.

  10. Lynda Young September 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm #

    Backstory is definitely important — it’s just the way we use it that makes the difference. 🙂
    Great post

  11. Donna Cummings September 27, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    I like backstory that is threaded through the character’s thoughts, the way it might flash through their brain as they experience something — it makes my ears perk up because it’s something intriguing and mysterious while it increases my sympathy for the character.

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