Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Back-story is not a Curse Word!

Although treated like a curse-word, back-story is a necessary part of any good manuscript.  It lays the ground work for strong characters while enabling the reader to connect with their plight. Strong characters are layered -- their reactions  an accumulation of a lifetime of defining events, emotions, and their surroundings.   These factors need to come out, and the easiest way to do that is through back-story.  But, be careful.  Back-story does not equate to info-dump.   

So the question is how do you get that necessary information across to the reader without pouring out paragraphs of dry information?
Dialogue- My least favorite way of expressing back-story.  This is your typical conversation between your MC and another character where they play the game of twenty questions.  It is effective, but often predictable and one-dimensional.

Info-dump – Detested by me and often met with a thick read line in those manuscripts I critique.  I usually find this in the first three chapters of a manuscript where the author expounds for paragraph upon paragraph on “character-building” material.

Memories - Getting better.  This is a more active way of relaying important information.  Add some dialogue to the memory and a little bit of a tension and you’re almost there.  

Setting and Description – Now we are on to something. This is an amazing, and often under-utilized, tool to explain why your characters act the way they do.  I often find that  setting is something authors only tackle in the first few chapters.  If you carry the theme throughout . . .  if you let the setting influence your MC’s decisions at every turn, then you have provided the necessary back-story to justify your character’s choices without dumping info.  Use you setting to amplify and contradict your MC’s choices and be specific. Let the setting unfold throughout the book and make it an integral part of your story.

There are dozen’s of other ways to get your information across, but regardless of your preferred method, come at it with a light touch.  Sprinkle the information throughout the manuscript, and utilize your scenes as a way to feed your readers little pieces of information.  Don’t assume that just because your story is contemporary, you don’t have to build a world.  Regardless of whether your story is set in a post-apocalyptic arena or contemporary Boston,  every character’s reactions revolve around a past, a present, and a future.


  1. Great post, Trisha, and I 100% agree. There are so many things that are cautioned against in writing (and deservedly so) that can be taken too far. You've got to have backstory, at some point, in just about every story. I think the key, as I've noticed in my favorite authors/books, is to make it blend into the rest of the story. So, in effect, the reader really doesn't look at it as backstory at all.

    Avoiding the heavy hand, as you mentioned, seems to be the key.

  2. Thanks for a great reminder, and some great ways to avoid the info dump.

  3. backstory is needed or else they just come from space. But it is hard to get it in there LOL

  4. Good post. I don't like the dialogue method either.

  5. They say every rule is made to broken, right? ;) I think the trick is just to do it WELL. Great advice on how to accomplish that!

  6. I always have a hard time deciding how to add any back story in so this is very helpful. Thanks for the great post.

  7. Great point! I usually have to go back and add to the setting in my revisions, I'm so focused on dialogue the first time around.

  8. Great post...not sure which category that huge info dump in my book falls into. Probably dialouge.