BACKSTORY: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

How to use backstory – and how much – is a question of some interest and debate. With that in mind, here comes opinion, just to start things off for readers and writers alike. Remember that nothing on this subject, like so many others in fiction, has biblical stature.

Backstory ought to enrich the movement through the story’s real time, or it will feel like a distraction. It should provide insight into the conduct of characters’ present state of mind and behavior. To do this, backstory must support the moment and be set off from real time by clear references to the shift in time and place. It fails, I think, when two mistakes are made: first, when the reader isn’t sure that the change has begun or, more important, that it has ended; second instead of moving through a scene inside the mind the point-of-view character, he feels like he is being loaded up with information about the past in the mind of the author.

A caveat here: There is disagreement about the distinction between showing and telling, that is, what is and what isn’t and whether telling is always to be avoided. This writer believes there is such a thing as “good telling,” but that’s another story…well, no, another topic. Let’s wait on that one.

Opinions abound about the appropriate length of backstory. One pole is to keep them short, using only suggestions about how a character feels about a past situation. The other is to return to the past at some length so long as it feels like a scene in another time and place rather than the author’s upload of more information than readers need.

Who better to sound off on what works and doesn’t than readers? Like everyone, writers generalize from their experience. So, readers, put on your memory caps. Go to the stories that have worked (or not) for you. Share your thoughts on the matter.

In what I read and write, I love to follow a POV character back upstream, to listen to him reflect about what is happening and what brought him to the place he finds himself. Even if it feels like telling, if it’s reflective, can work for me.

In Corrections, Jonathon Franzen uses stretches of backstory in the middle of a chapter. He has the skill to make characters’ reflections about past, present, and future feel like scenes shown through the voices of his characters. When he takes his readers away from real time for longer than moments, it is not a distraction.

In Boundaries, my POV characters reflect about the past in segments both long and short. I reserve Chapters 12, and Chapter 16 to show Ben Snow’s experiences that led to his shift to a silk stocking law firm to a public outfit serving poor people. On the other hand, Sydney Bouquet’s backstory appears in brief scenes inside real time. In the last two pages of Chapter 8, her answers to her lawyer’s questions become scenes from her past. In Chapter 22 she is back home in Belews Creek, North Carolina in reveries that relieve her from the turmoil of her struggle for the custody her son or take her back to the troubled marriage from which she escaped. Things like this happen in much of the fiction I love to read. How about you?

Of course, as the “first reader,” I am not without bias. But you don’t have to read Boundaries to share the impressions you have collected as a reader. What are they? What novels have influenced you on this subject? If you are a writer or a storyteller, how have you handled backstory?


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