Writing Backstories

The dreaded backstory, often done wrong in the form of an info dump. *Cringes*

You should never use an info dump. It’s boring and tedious, and many readers skip it. I made sure to avoid them when editing through my newest novel, because–quite honestly–they’re unnecessary. Backstories can be woven into the story’s plotline without throwing them into the faces of readers. Be subtle and crafty about it.

Dialogue is perhaps the simplest way to add backstory. You can add both backstory and personality when characters are speaking to one another. For example, this is pulled from my steampunk novel:

“God, I ‘ate this place,” Fletcher muttered aloud, joining her now on the deck. The crew loitered about, ordered to stay onboard; the stop in Rosemead wasn’t for sight-seeing or errands. “Had me worst scuffles ‘ere—me boots stolen once.”

Taliah flashed him an enquiring look, eyebrows raised. “How does one have their boots stolen?”

Captain Fletcher gave a weak shrug. “Hell if I know. While drunk off me arse, I s’pose.”

In this example, you learn the backstory of a character through a few simple lines of dialogue. He used to be someone who found trouble often but now it’s clear he doesn’t like that lifestyle any longer. Dialogue is a fun and easy way to work in a character’s past.

Flashbacks are another way to go about adding backstory, but it’s important to note that you should use them sparingly. I wouldn’t rely on flashbacks to tell a story or to fully explain a character’s past. The flashback can be a memory or a dream or something that happens when the character is experiencing trauma. I’m currently watching Castle and on one episode a character is having trouble working a case involving a sniper because of being shot by one in the past. Throughout the episode the character is experiencing trauma through flashbacks of the shooting.

A character’s thoughts can also tell a story. Characters might say one thing and then think another, or they might have an opinion on a place they’re visiting or a person they’re just meeting. In The Dragonbone Chair, characters are often thinking about one another. For example:

It’s not the wine he’s wanting, the Rimmersman thought, it’s the attention. These are grim enough days for the young and useful, let alone for an old trickster whose master is two years dead.

The Rimmersman tells us about the state of the world and about the past of another character, which is an effective way to use a character’s thoughts to weave in backstory.

Make sure when you’re writing in a backstory that it’s important to the plotline or to the characters and not something that will bore the reader or was just added for word count. Some things aren’t important and don’t need to be included; they’re just taking up space in an otherwise good story.

So give writing in backstory with these methods a try and avoid the awful info dump. 🙂

Happy writing,

Sandra

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