Writing Tips

How to Write in a Great Backstory!

We all have a past and with it secrets we would rather forget. Sometimes though these things have a way of coming out. The same is true for your protagonist but the trick is learning how to drip feed this information slowly and when necessary rather than dump your reader with an overload of information they will barely skim over.

First things first if you have already outlined your character’s development you’re one step ahead of the game. You should already have a solid idea of who your character is and why they are the way they are. The task then, however, is figuring out what information to release and when. Now some of you might be tempted to stick a prologue at the front and whack it out of the way but here’s an excellent post by Maeve Maddox explaining why that isn’t the best option (along with the exceptions).

​Consider the case of trucker girl. She already has a strong motive established; she needs to find her missing brother. What about her back story though? There are several parts to her background that could be of interest to readers. These range from her career as a lorry driver, to her inspired knowledge of survival skills to why or how was she separated from her family in the first place and how does she know her parents are dead? All of these questions help shape her character development and explains why she is searching for her missing brother but as the writer I need to consider how, when and if I share this information. 

As the writer, and somewhat possessive owner, of trucker girl I know that her career as a lorry driver stemmed from her following in her father’s footsteps but as this doesn’t directly impact the storyline it’s irrelevant. Bin it. Now how she came to be on this quest does influence the story as it utimately persuades her ally to join her on their epic road trip but again this can be done over a period of time where she lets the occasional comment slip out. This builds up an overall picture of the major events that transpired without overwhelming the reader.

Yes, I could show her story through a prologue, first person flashback or dialogue with secondary characters but the trick is not to give it all away at once. Too often I read novels or screenplays that overload on backstory with reams of writing and to be honest they lose my interest. I end up skipping through the entire section and therefore miss out on the crucial snippets I did need to know. To avoid these mistakes in my own and your manuscript break up the backstory and discard as much of it as possible. What’s left should be relevant and succinct. Why use 100 words to explain what happened when you can do it in 10?

You may have heard a little mystery keeps the romance alive and the same is true in fiction. Although your protagonist’s backstory may be thoroughly interesting you need to ask yourself if it really necessary to drive the plot forward. Where it is necessary remember a useful tip ‘show, don’t tell’. TTYL.

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