Your character needs backstory, but don’t dump it

I want to take some extra time to go into one point on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist in detail:

Personal histories are brought into the story organically

Backstory is usually a bad word among writers. But the truth is, it’s necessary—to you. Knowing your character’s history is good. What’s bad is dumping all that history in one big lump at the beginning of your novel.

This is a common new-writer error. A character comes on the scene for the first time, and the author steps in and delivers a paragraph or two—I’ve seen pages—describing the character’s history, sometimes back to childhood.

© Stephen Finn -
© Stephen Finn –

I know what’s happening here, because I’ve done it myself. There are two main causes of backstory infodump:

  1. You know the character well; you’ve stored up his history in your head, and it all spills out when he enters the story.
  2. You’re discovering this character for the first time, and as she tells you her story, you write it down.

Either way, that’s great. Write, write, and keep writing—If you’re on your first draft.

But when it comes time to edit, select all those paragraphs of backstory—yes, all of them—and hit ⌘-x (Mac) or CTRL-x (Win). Yep, that’s the “cut” command. Cut all of it. Open a new document, and paste. Save this as CharacterName backstory.

Notice I don’t tell you to delete it. Of course not. It’s very important information for you to have.

It just doesn’t belong in your novel. Not all of it, anyway, and not in one big lump.

Incorporating that backstory needs to be done slowly. It’s OK to leave readers in the dark awhile. A long while. Like, the whole book.

Imagine how the tension in Psycho would be defused if our introduction to Norman Bates included his whole backstory—and his mother’s. We don’t learn the truth about Mrs. Bates until nearly the end, and that provides suspense, while the discovery provides that shocker ending.

Margie Lawson teaches a great analogy for handling backstory: Imagine your character’s history written on a big pane of glass. Now go outside and drop it on the pavement and watch it shatter into a thousand pieces. Take a few of those shards, and insert them strategically throughout your story.

Next time, we’ll talk more about how to do that, and look at the other sort of info writers tend to dump.

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1 Comment

  1. […] discussed this subject earlier when we talked about avoiding narrative info dumps in our character history. Something in the story may remind your character of something from her past, but don’t let her […]

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