Friday, June 3, 2011

Lean and Mean--Backstory

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Backstory is the history behind the situation that’s current at the start of the main story. Backstory is used to lend the main story depth or the appearance of reality. A backstory may include the history of characters, objects, countries, or other elements of the main story. It can be revealed in flashback, dialogue, or exposition. The main thing is to scatter the information through the story as it’s needed. Don’t tell the whole story at once.

Avoid using backstory in the opening scene. Let the reader wonder for a little while. Drop hints to generate interest, but don’t stop the action to give explanations.
Backstories are usually revealed in small, appropriate bits as the story progresses; the background information should pertain to the story in some way. For example:
Gary hurried into the quick shop and grabbed a six pack of Coors. He turned toward the cash register and stopped. The blonde behind the counter, thin and fragile as his grandmother’s crystal, looked on the verge of collapse. Something about her tickled his memory. He looked closer and she glanced up from the till. Pale blue eyes stared at him, the left visible through a slit in swollen, discolored flesh.
Damn. Daisy Brown. He hadn’t seen her since high school. Even then, she bore the marks of a man’s fists. Her father’s, if he remembered. One day not long before graduation, she came limping in and a social worker and a cop had taken her from school. He never saw her again.
“Daisy?” he said.
The part in italics is backstory. Again, keep the word "had" to a minimum. It distances the reader from the story. Gary is remembering and thinking (telling) what happened in the past, but he isn’t showing us. This should be pertinent to the story and to what’s happening at the moment.


Maryn Sinclair said...

Excellent post, Ellis, as always, and very timely for me. "Had" can be a trap. In a longer flashback, it's better to set the time frame in the past perfect tense, then segue to past for the body of the scene, then get out with past perfect to end the flashback. As long as the reader knows when the scene takes place, a writer must weigh what is technically correct on the one hand to a passage that reads smoothly on the other.

Donnell said...

Interesting, informative post as always, Ellis! Thank you.

Ellis Vidler said...

Donnell, thank you.
Maryn, absolutely right!

Polly said...

Your posts should be required reading, Ellis. I wouldn't miss The Muse on Saturday morning.

bj said...

As "Reader", I love backstories and love having them ladled out little bits at a time. That way they are easier to take in and also serve as "teasers" to bring me along in the story.

bj said...

So glad to see Linda will soon post a blog here. Looking forward, BJ