The Backstory Breakdown by Shelley Martin
Every character has a backstory. The problem is: how do we reveal their past without info dumping or other blunders? This is something all writers struggle with, including me. Here’s a breakdown of different forms backstory can take, and tips to make it work.
The Info Dump.This is where something happens to a character, and the author breaks into the story to tell why what’s happening is important. For example- “George the Gladiator lifted his new helmet in salute before sliding it on. Little did he know, the helmet had been the downfall of every gladiator who’d worn it before. Malley the Masculine died from a blade to the eye, while the helmet simply slid off the head of Homer the Hairless…” I could go on, but hopefully you see that we went from the story of George, to a list of a bunch of other guys we’ve never heard of, or care about. George is about to go into battle and the reader wants to know if he’s going to survive, not how Homer the Hairless died. George could find out the info of the helmet by reading it in a scroll after the battle, or hearing about it from a friend. There are many ways to get this info to George and the reader. Be creative!
Paragraph Two.This is a pet peeve of mine. You’ve opened up with a great line, which turns into a fantastic opening paragraph. You’ve got me hooked. Then paragraph two starts with “Earlier that morning, as I ate my cereal and read the box, I would have never thought my day would have turned out like this. I brushed my teeth and chose my clothes, searching for my favorite shirt…” Anyone asleep, yet? It seems this most often occurs when authors start out with “I brushed my teeth and chose my clothes…” Then, someone tells them to liven it up. So they write this great paragraph of what’s going to happen at the end of the day, and stick it at the front to draw you in. That’s a no-no. Put in the elbow grease and rewrite the whole opener, please. I always walk away from stories like this, and they happen quite often, believe me.
Backstory is often seen as a villain, but it can be your friend, too. I hope these tips can help you beat that backstory into submission. And if it helps, write the backstory out on a completely separate page. Then break it up and weave it into your manuscript. Sometimes after you get it all out, you can trim the excess to make it quick, snappy, and to the point. And that’s usually what your reader wants: just enough to help them along, but not so much that it will yank them from the current story they are falling in love with.
Shelley Martin taught kindergarten and ran cattle; once upon a time. She’s now an award winning author, mother and wife, and loves living in North Idaho. Her imagination has always plagued her, the characters jumping into her head at some random song or thought. She started writing when she was ten, finishing her first short story when she was eleven. The paranormal has always fascinated her, and nothing draws her to the page more than the whisperings of fantastical creatures. Shelley loves to hear from her readers! You can reach her at Shelleymartinfiction@gmail.com