The September Yellow Highlighter Class has just finished, and I’m getting ready to set up the space where I’ll hold the October Yellow Highlighter Class. As always, the writer’s newsletter will go out at about the same time as the invitations to the Yellow Highlighter Class. This is often the catalyst for my writing related posts as I like to include a writing post that will really help my readers in each newsletter. If you haven’t signed up for the newsletter, do so here. You won’t want to miss out on the writing related posts or on the opportunities to register for upcoming Yellow Highlighter Classes.
During the September Yellow Highlighter Class the subject of backstory came up several times, with several different participants, so I think I’ll talk about backstory this time.
Those of us who have been writing for any length of time have been warned of the folly of including too much backstory at the opening of the story…and indeed this is good advice.
But in this particular Yellow Highlighter Class my suggestions regarding backstory were mostly advising participants to include more backstory or more detail to explain the character’s current situation. What’s with this? It seems totally at odds with the “Thou Shalt Not Backstory Dump” that we’ve all been taught and internalized….
So…let’s take a step back and talk about backstory and see if we can make some sense of it.
Backstory is a history or the life experiences and events that are invented for a character. The backstory explains why the character is the way he or she is…it helps a reader to understand what events and experiences shaped the character. Often the backstory–that fictional background and history complete with the moments and experiences that most impacted the character–are where we find the seeds of goal, motivation, and conflict. So, backstory is very important.
This might lead one to wonder, if backstory is so important, and it plays such a heavy role in something as important as GMC (goal, motivation and conflict) why shouldn’t we lead with it?
As with the reasons for most things we do/don’t do related to writing commercial fiction, we shouldn’t lead with backstory because it weakens the reading experience for the reader. Starting with a big info dump about how the character came to be how he is, would be BORING for the reader. Readers want to jump right into a situation in which something is happening and in which there are stakes of some sort associated with what is happening. Backstory has already happened…often in the far distant past, so it lacks the immediate sense of something happening and the stakes associated with it that the reader is looking for. This is why we’re advised against including too much backstory at the opening of the story.
That said, including no backstory at all can be just as bad for the reader’s reading experience as including too much. When we snatch our readers and shove them into a scene with a character who is clearly in conflict with another character but we don’t give them any sense of what has caused the conflict or who is right and who is wrong or why the issue in question is important, the reader feels muddled, confused, and unsure about what is happening or whose side they should be on. So while we don’t want to go back to childhood and explain that the scar on our hero’s chin was caused by his three-year old brother hitting him with a hubcap and that the two have been in conflict over parental love ever since we do need to convey that the hero and his brother have been in conflict for a long time and we need to convey what they are in conflict about this time. We need to include this information because it helps the reader to understand what’s happening in the current moment of the story. It helps the reader know which brother to side with…which helps them to vest in the story. Readers need to understand what is happening in a story to vest in it so it is imperative to include enough detail of the past and present issues for the reader to understand what is going on…so that they know who to root for.
Sometimes this comes down to letting the reader in on the character’s goal. A reader can’t vest in a character’s generic goal to make the ranch successful again. But the reader can vest in and care about the outcome of an auction in which a prize bull is being sold if the money from the sale will finally put the ranch in the black. Goals need to be clear, concise and specific.
When it comes to backstory we need to be aware of what helps the reader understand what is going on in the current moment of the story and what is superficial clutter. Acceptable backstory is that which helps the reader to understand what is going on in the current moment of the story, why it is going on, why it’s important to the viewpoint character, or why the character thinks, feels, or behaves as he does in the situation.
Backstory of this type differs from the superficial clutter kind of backstory that comes in to describe how the characters came to be in this place, in this time, ready for the story to start. Backstory that serves only to describe how the characters came to be in their places ready for the story to start is the bad kind of backstory dump that we’ve been warned about. We need to avoid this kind of backstory dump. A crucial question to determine which kind of backstory you’re dealing with is whether the details of the backstory explains what is currently going on or whether it is just intended to bring the reader up to speed on what has already happened so that they are READY to understand what happens next.
Backstory that explains what is currently going on, why the character thinks or feels or behaves as he does in the current moment of the story is more positive backstory which can and should be fed in in small segments to help the reader understand the goal, motivation, and conflict of a given character.
One kind of backstory deepens the reader’s reading experience.
The other kind of backstory weakens the reader’s reading experience.
When dealing with backstory ask yourself whether the reader needs the backstory (and how much of the backstory they need) to understand what is going on in the current, forward moving story. Include just that amount.