Backstory is everything that happened to your characters before your current story. Backstory is an important thing for you as a writer to know and think up, but detracts from your story when overused. So let’s discuss how and when we should include backstory.

Out of your character’s backstory and history, only about 10% of it should go into your story. Knowledge of your character and their past will help you write a well-rounded character, but unless it pushes the present story forward, it should be omitted from your WiP. No matter how tempting it is to include, if it doesn’t shape the present, it needs to be left out. Your readers want to know what happens next, not what happened before.

Backstory should be used for foreshadowing and be given at just the right moment. If your character is trained in fighting, don’t wait until right before a fight to tell the reader. Then it will seem like a deus ex machina situation where the reader will feel cheated. Foreshadow instead. And make sure your backstory is pertinent to the current story. Don’t give your character a dark and troubled past that doesn’t affect the current story just to make them seem more interesting. Again you’ll leave the reader feeling cheated. The trauma they experience should be linked to the current plot in some way.

So how do we include relevant backstory? By avoiding heavy exposition and info dumps at all costs. Instead weave information in and focus on the Show Don’t Tell rule. Sprinkle the information in between the dialogue and action.

Only use backstory to further the plot in the here and now and to keep readers from getting confused. Use it to foreshadow, giving relevant information before it is needed by readers. And intersperse it between your dialogue or action so it doesn’t overpower the story.

If you use flashbacks, make sure they are clearly delineated. This is done by having them in italics. And don’t confuse your reader with too many flashbacks and jumping forward. A well done flashback can be powerful, but if you’re too heavy-handed, then your reader will struggle.

What are your thoughts on backstory? Do you have any tips about when to use it? Comment below and, as usual, happy writing.


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