Baby Got Backstory

One of the things I love most about beginning a new writing project is figuring out the backstory: the history and culture of the world I’m building and of the characters who populate it. I’ll spend days thinking about my protagonist’s minor medical conditions, or the names and occupations of his relatives, or how the government of his city is structured. By the time I’m ready to start writing a first draft, I’ve collected a wealth of information about my characters and their world, and all I want to do is share this information with my readers. After all, it’s fascinating! Why shouldn’t I begin my book with a fifty-page description of every street in the city and each one of its residents?

At this point in the process, I remember that an infant story is sort of like an infant human: although they might be perfectly charming, your infant story’s burps and squeals are not nearly as interesting to normal people as they are to you. As I’ve drafted the first few chapters of my new project, I’ve had to figure out which pieces of backstory to include in the book, where to include them, and which pieces to discard—not because they’re bad in any way, but because they’re not helpful to the story. Here are a few of the guiding principles I’ve been attempting to follow recently:

Save that backstory for chapter two.

Okay, it doesn’t actually have to be chapter two. This is just shorthand for the idea that it can be helpful to start a story with a scene rather than with a big chunk of backstory-filled narration. The dramatic tension of the scene will draw readers into the book, and they’ll get to know about the protagonist and her goals. Then, when they reach the second scene or the second chapter and you hit ‘em with all that backstory, they’ll have some context for it and, more importantly, a reason to care about it. Get your readers hooked and invested first, and they’ll be craving those juicy backstory details as much as you are.

Sprinkles are just as effective as lumps.

I’m not very good at following my first guiding principle. Sometimes information just can’t wait until chapter two. How are readers supposed to understand the stakes of Melinda’s dramatic argument with her grandfather if they don’t know that her grandfather was the evil sorcerer who turned her into a fruit bat in the first place? When this is the case, I try to sprinkle backstory lightly over the scene, inserting it in between lines of dialogue, never in more than one or two sentences at a time, and certainly not in entire paragraphs. Something like this:

“I hate you!” Melinda said to her grandfather. He was, after all, responsible for her furry wings and her newfound powers of echolocation. “How am I supposed to go to the prom now?”

Don’t force it.

Putting essential bits of background information into dialogue can seem like a clever way to weave backstory into a scene, but you really have to make sure that this information is something the characters would realistically say to each other. Don’t put awkward words into their mouths just to satisfy your insatiable lust for backstory.

“Do you remember, my dear Melinda,” said her grandfather, “when I, the evil sorcerer, turned you into a fruit bat?”

“Of course I do, you moron,” said Melinda. “It happened thirty seconds ago.”

If it’s not essential right now, save it for later. Or for never.

I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities to introduce the little morsels of backstory I’ve been saving up. If I want to tell readers that Melinda is allergic to peanut butter, I might slip this information into a scene at the grocery store or the cafeteria—a place where it’d naturally come up. Still, even if a piece of backstory fits perfectly into a scene, I won’t include it unless it’s (1) really funny, (2) important to the story right now, or (3) important to the story much later, but I want to plant a sneaky little foreshadowing clue about it early on. There are a lot of details I’ve worked on and loved that will never fall into any of these categories, so I write them into the story anyway, and then I delete them with a sigh. The sigh is important. It helps give you closure.

Now that I’ve told you how I’ve been wrangling my backstory, I’d like to hear from you. What tricks do you use to weave brilliant backstories into your books?