Jun 5, 2015 · 20 Comments
Hi all! I've been terrible at journaling lately! Life just got too busy for me, but I'm back with my take on one of the really tricky areas of writing. How to handle backstory without resorting to infodumps.
First, I should probably explain what these things are.
Backstory is made up of all the things that happened to your characters and/or their world before the story begins. A lot of those things might be really important to the story you're telling now. Backstory answers a lot of why-type questions. Why is my character so afraid of the water? Why did the wizard decide to become a wizard in the first place? Who cursed your hero, and why?
If we take the example where the character is afraid of water. That information could prove very important when you're telling the story, especially if the character is confronted with the same situation again, and it might have a lot to do with how they react.
For example: When Jack was six, he went fishing with his dad from the public wharf. It went so well that he caught his very first fish in less than an hour. His dad helped him haul it up and it landed, flopping on the thick wooden boards of the wharf. Jack, who had expected it to be dead, backed away from it, squealing in horror, and fell off the edge of the wharf and straight into the sea! His Dad jumped in and pulled him straight to the surface, coughing and gagging on the salty water. Ever since then, Jack won't even take a bath, only showering, and getting the shakes just driving past someone's swimming pool.
All this has a lot to do with how Jack behaves when in your story, he finds himself having to chase a man who just mugged his girlfriend, and the crook runs out onto a busy wharf. If all we see is Jack screeching to a halt, and standing there shaking, watching the crook and his girlfriend's handbag disappear into the distance, we're going to wonder why. Especially if Jack has been brave and fearless up til this point. This can be a good way of setting up a mystery, but it can also just be confusing.
Backstory makes your story richer and more believable, too. If we know that our hero is already angry because she'd witnessed her little sister being picked on by bullies, then it makes a lot more sense if she explodes in anger when someone teases her best friend the next day. Backstory helps set up events for later, and helps us understand why something might happen a certain way. It helps makes things believable--which can be especially important if you're writing fantasy.
But there are some big problems that can come along with backstory. How do you present it, and where? Which bits are important and which don't matter to the story?
Which bits are important?
Sometimes, you won't know this until the story is over, and backstory might be something you add later on. That could be a bit tricky if you're publishing as you write on Storybird. So a little bit of planning could help here. If you know that your story will end with your hero facing something that terrifies them and overcoming their worst fear, then finding out how he got that fear is very important. For instance, if you saw Jack just run out onto the wharf and catch that mugger, it wouldn't be anywhere near as exciting as it is when you know how scared he is to be there.
If you're thinking of putting in a scene that shows Jack is also scared of, say, crows, and it has nothing to do with the plot, and isn't going to come up elsewhere in the story, it might help you understand Jack better for yourself, but you don't need to put it in the story.
How do you put backstory in properly?
You could probably write an entire book just about this one subject. The most important thing, though, is to avoid something we call "infodumps". An infodump is when you put something in just to explain some backstory, but it comes off being boring, unnecessary, mechanical, or distracts from the real story. Here's an example of an infodump:
"Jack rounded the corner, his heart thumping hard in his chest. He had to get Justine's bag back. His boots thudded hard and fast on the pavement. He gained inches with every step. He could do this, he could catch him. Wait. Was the mugger heading for the wharf? No! When Jack was only six, he'd fallen from this very wharf. His dad had taken him fishing for the first time, and he'd been great at it. The fish he caught had a yellow belly that flashed in the sunlight as it flopped about on the wharf. The sight had scared Jack so badly, that he'd walked backward into the sea. His dad fished him out, but not before he'd swallowed what felt like half of the ocean. Jack had thought he'd die that day. If he ran out onto that wharf after the mugger, it'd be all over. Gritting his teeth, Jack surged onward anyway."
See how that took you right out of the action that was happening? One second, Jack's sprinting along behind the mugger, determined to save Justine's bag. The next he's remembering his fishing trip with his dad. This is important information, but would have been a lot better if it had been mentioned waaaay back in the story. Then, instead of that whole dump of information in the middle of the action, it could have been more like, "Jack remembered the falling, the salt water in his lungs, but he ran on even faster."
It's also important to introduce backstory naturally, rather than having it come off awkward and weird. For example: Jack walked into the supermarket and saw a familiar face. "Hi, Mrs. Souza, my old teacher. I haven't seen you since fourth grade!"
That is super unnatural. No one would greet someone that way. It would work a lot better if it went more like this: Just inside the entrance to the supermarket, Jack saw the familiar face of his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Souza. "Hi, how are you?" he asked.
That might not be a particularly exciting example, but at least you can see how I conveyed the same information but in a much more natural and interesting way.
So, all in all, backstory can be a bit of a juggling act. It's very important and can add so much color and interest to a story, if it's handled right. Or it can be a major bore to your readers if you handle it wrong.
I hope you're all enjoying the last few weeks of The Fake! Only four more chapters and two more weeks left to go!