First, I want to point you all to some fabulous articles by my friend, Ian McHugh. Ian’s a multi-award winning writer and very insightful about the process. In particular his series of articles On The Basics is brilliant – I read it this week and was blown away. Well worth your time –

Now, onto my thoughts about backstory and how you write it. Backstory is anything that happened prior to the story you’re currently writing. It could be worldbuilding stuff. It could be character history. It could be a previous story if you’re writing a sequel.

Backstory is always a difficult one to work around. What a lot of authors do (mostly beginners, but sometimes folks who should know better) is to put it all on the page as soon as possible, to get it out of the way so to speak so they can get onto the story.

This is called infodump, which to my mind is one of the most brilliant pieces of jargon ever because it completely describes what it is – you’re dumping information on the page.

The problem with infodump is that it diverts attention away from the story. If it goes on for too long, then it can completely ruin the rhythm of the story. Not to mention that most infodump is written in an expository fashion (like the reports on class excursions you had to write at school) and this style of writing can very quickly get boring.

Sometimes, infodump is the only way, the best way, to provide the information. But most of the time, with a bit of effort, you can do it in a much better way. Often times, when infodump is used, it’s laziness on the part of the author.

So how do you give the readers backstory without infodumping?

You ask two questions:
a) Does the reader need to know this NOW?
b) Is this the most interesting way to tell them?

If you ask yourself these questions every time you need to reveal something that’s not part of the immediate action of the story, you’ll mostly avoid infodump and will provide the backstory in a way that supports and enhances the story, rather than detracting from it.

Let’s work through a bit of an example. Let’s say you’re writing a story with the classic girl/boy shepherd who discovers they are to be queen/king. You start with a lovely few pages showing us this person – they work hard, they are dedicated to their sheep, they live in a beautiful farming area, the flirt with the groom/milkmaid, they go home to care for their ailing parent. You’ve got the reader more than half-way in love with the character and their idyllic life.

Should this be the moment you tell the reader about how they were kidnapped as a baby and given to this life to make room for their ambitious uncle and his progeny?

Does the reader need to know this now? Well, no. There’s more interesting places to tell us. For example, the reader could find all this out the moment the character does. That makes perfect sense.

What if you get toward that point and you realise – hang on, it would be much more interesting if the character never find out how they originally lost their birthright. They’ll be wondering all the time – was it planned? Was it an accident? Did my parents not love me enough? Did the kingdom not care and that’s why they never found me until now? It adds a whole layer of tension to the story that wouldn’t be present if they found out what happened and why.

So you ask yourself again – should the reader know the truth? Maybe. Maybe not. If it won’t interfere with their understanding and enjoyment of the story,  they don’t need to know at all.

Before you know it, you’ve either put the backstory into the part of the story where it best fits or you’ve not put it in at all. And meanwhile, that lovely beginning isn’t cut off from the rest of the piece by a couple of pages explaining who the character is and what happened to them. No infodump. Just backstory well used, or discarded.

Don’t be afraid to not use backstory, or information about the world. What it does is creates a sort of iceberg affect – people only see the small thing you’re showing but they sense there’s much more to it, and that makes the story seem richer.

You may be tempted to put your backstory into a prologue. This is a time honoured choice by many fantasy writers in particular. Be aware of something – there are people out there who vehemently HATE prologues. You’re going to lose a whole wack of readers just by having them.

Ask yourself the question – is this the most interesting way I can provide this information to the readers? If it isn’t, then don’t do it.

One interesting way is to show your backstory stylistically. That is, to use the bits of information that you need to show your readers as part of the structure of the story.

Let me show you with another example. Let’s say your story is about a serial killer who is about to make their perfect killing, the one that all the others has been leading up to. Now, the rest of the murders are important to show the build up to this moment, but just writing a description of each one is going to end up reading a bit like a shopping list – albeit a very icky one.

So what you could do is write a paragraph, just a few lines, about each murder and then intersperse them through the story, so they deliver a sort of stop, a beat, to the piece. Play with the spacing – maybe start with them at a distance, then put less and less of the real story in between until those beats feel like they’ve sped up like a panicked heartbeat. That could be really cool.

Or maybe you do it as a different genre – write the main story as a narrative, then intersperse with newspaper reports, so you’ve almost got two stories going at once – the larger one of the serial killers career and the close-up view of this particular murder.

The readers will get the information they need to have the full impact of what’s going on, and they’ll get it in a way that not only is interesting but could even increase that impact by exponentially increasing their horror.

So remember when it comes to backstory, ask yourself those two questions:
a) Does the reader need to know this NOW?
b) Is this the most interesting way to tell them?