In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Backstory is all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story. Backstory helps define character and establish motivation. I think it’s important to get the backstory in as quickly as possible, but it’s also important to do it with some grace.
Writing backstory into your fiction is often super tricky.
And I often find that backstory is one of the elements that improves considerably with lots of practice and time as a writer.
You might be really good right out of the gate with your dialogue. With your character development. With your chapter cliffhangers.
But backstory is like description. It needs to be there, but only some of the time. Write too much backstory, and the current reality of your story gets lost, and your reader might even lose interest. Write too little backstory, and your characters might become too one-dimensional, too stereotypical.
Even if your story is completely focused in on a small moment in time, you need some backstory. You need at least a hint of where these characters came from and what deep down makes them tick.
The way you integrate the backstory often makes or breaks your writing.
Stephen King recommends getting to the backstory as early as possible, and I mostly agree with that.
If there’s something important about your protagonist’s backstory that will play a role in the narrative, don’t introduce that information on page 312.
Don’t introduce it on page 2 necessarily either, but do introduce it early on. Have the reader thinking about that piece of the character’s backstory, even it’s just at the back of his or her mind. Doing so will allow the big moment that happens later to have a satisfying payoff.
The trick is finding the balance between too little backstory and too much backstory. Do you stop the story cold for a large paragraph to deliver backstory? Potentially stop the story cold for many, many pages at a time to deliver backstory? I’ve seen this done well by authors, and I’ve seen it done not so well.
Personally, my favorite kind of backstory is woven into what’s happening in the current narrative. I typically hate it when suddenly chapter 6 opens with a flashback that’s filled with tons of backstory about the characters, and then it’s not for nine more pages that we’re thrown back into the current reality.
I like, instead, when one or two sentences of backstory are delivered in the middle of a paragraph, or after a line of dialogue, or after a bit of description. Something that gives the reader a tiny little piece of backstory information that reveals something about the character.
Whatever you do, make sure your have a clear backstory for each of your major characters before you begin writing.
I like to write detailed character bios for my three or four main characters in each novel project I take on. Many of the details in these bios never find their way into the completed manuscript, and you know what? That’s okay!
What’s important is that you the author at least know the backstory. Have a handle on where each character came from, what makes him or her tick, why he or she does the things that he or she does.
Knowing a lot more than you ever need to about each character will make your writing richer because then, once you know so much, you’ll find yourself dropping little hints of backstory here and there throughout your manuscript. You’ll be able to show your reader so much detail and insight about your characters!
Backstory is absolutely key to a great story, whether it’s 4,000 words or 140,000 words. There’s no excuse to avoid integrating backstory into your work. If you struggle with it, keep practicing.
Don’t think of backstory as merely flashback. Don’t think of it as a way to stop the current story cold to deliver information to your reader.
Backstory should be delivered in a way that’s surprising and informative and entertaining for the reader!
Figure out how to integrate backstory, and you, my friend, are already ahead of the game.