Writing: Back Story Refresher

Writing back story is always tricky. Learn some easy techniques for easing back story into your work.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s review some basic methods for efficient back story in your fiction:

Why Back Story?

Writers want readers to understand their character. This urge can lead to a lengthy re-tell of the character’s background, chunked into place in Chapter One. But beware: Any narrative that takes readers out of the real-time scene is risky. And it’s especially risky in a first chapter, where readers don’t yet know either the character or the goal.

We can present a more compelling character by showing our character doing important things or having prominent attitudes instead of letting their minds reel back. Think about how you decide if you like a real person when you meet them. If all they do is brag about the past, are you really interested? Ideally, that new person would either do, speak or think in ways you find attractive or at least admirable.

Unfortunately, cramming a lot of back story into your early opening makes readers a bit confused—am I going to hear a real-time story or is the past more interesting. If the past is better, why not set the story there? There are notable exceptions, but most backward-looking stories that are told from a now perspective don’t stay in the now very long. Get to the meat and skip the throat-clearing reverie.

The Old Cold Mashed Potatoes

One of the most effective ways to understand how back story shapes your story is to imagine a scene where your character sits at a banquet table. This character is served a heaping pile of yummy mashed potatoes. As the fork digs in, the character remembers his grandma’s wonderful mashed potatoes and his mind reels back.

With the fork in midair, the real-time scene freezes. The reader goes to the past with the memory, but all the while, that real-time scene stays on pause. The longer the memory, the higher the chance that readers will forget the original real-time scene.

When the memory is over, the readers return to that banquet table. But by now, those yummy mashed potatoes are stone cold and unappetizing. Writers risk their readers saying, “Why did I read about this part in the first place?”

Don’t allow the mashed potatoes to grow cold! 

Weave It or Leave It Out

Any time you insert back story, you risk a disconnect with readers. As the reader holds his breath during a memory, the real-time scene is either forgotten or produces confusion. Be sure that the back story has an immediate and needed placement. Without it, will readers understand what’s going on?

I often advise weaving in back story in three-sentence chunks, so as not to interrupt the scene too much. But be careful: all back story puts your actual story on hold why you explain why a character is the way he is. Instead, consider baking in emotional thoughts or actions or interior self-talk that shows what you are trying to illustrate with back story.

Consider taking away all back story in Chapter One and replacing it with thoughts, dialogue and actions that help readers see your character. Don’t try to force opinions on readers—and back story is notorious for the author trying to manipulate readers into thinking a certain way. Instead, paint your character in the same way you would someone you just met—by placing them in scenes that show the personality and goal of that character. What’s the hardest part of back story for you?


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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