Backstory: The B-Word

writers group critique group

By Jennifer L. Rogala
Writer's Infusion Critiquer

Let’s talk about the use of the B-word: when it’s appropriate to use, and when it’s not.  I’m talking about Backstory. Or, as my friend David Sahl calls it, “Aching Back” Story.
Backstory is your characters’ experiences that occur before the start of your current story. These circumstances shape how characters think and respond to situations within your narrative.  Consider your character’s fatal flaw or weakness. This flaw is the inner issue they must continue to face and eventually overcome to accomplish their goal. At some point, you may want to clue the reader in as to how the character developed this flaw. Where in the story this information is revealed can add emotional depth, or pull your reader out of the story.
Stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aren’t good examples for this discussion since the past shares equal time with the present story.  In Dickens’ classic tale, the past is every bit as much of the story as the present.  I’m limiting this discussion to stories that remain primarily in the present, but dip into the past every now and then.
Readers don’t need to know your character’s history at the start. Allow a slow reveal. It’s okay, even preferred. Keep the story moving forward.  Withholding information can add suspense, curiosity, and anticipation, which makes readers keep turning pages. Once the reader cares, the backstory will be more meaningful.
If I start a story about how 12-year-old Joey developed a fear of heights when he was eight, after a turbulent flight home from Disneyland, why would you care? But, what if I tell the story of shy Joey who desperately wants to ask Millie to the school dance? He gets invited to go swimming at the local pond, and Millie happens to be there. All the other boys are jumping off a steep cliff into the pond, and Millie is impressed. Once Joey’s anxiety sets in, then, the scary flight home from Disneyland is fresh in his mind.  Now, his fear of heights is important, and adds tension, because something is at stake. Will he be able to jump off the cliff and impress Millie? Or will he be embarrassed in front of everyone, and lose any chance that Millie will go to the dance with him?
If you start your novel with backstory, you risk not engaging your readers, and they’ll close the book. It’s tempting to start with what you think they need to know first, but backstory is rarely done well as an info dump at the beginning of your novel. 
When used wisely, backstory will add depth to your story.  Peppering it into your novel only when essential to the current scene will enhance the reader’s appetite for knowledge.  Placing it at the right time in your story, can increase tension, reveal motivations, and impact your characters’ and readers’ emotions.
When tempted to add backstory, flashback scenes, or snippets of memory to your story, ask yourself these questions: 
-    Does the reader need to know this now?  If not, wait until this information becomes crucial to the story.
-    If I take it out, does the scene still move the plot forward?  Does the story still make sense? If yes, then this is probably the wrong spot in your narrative to add the backstory.
-    Does this flashback stop the momentum of the story?  If yes, you are risking pulling readers out of the story and breaking the spell they are under. There better be a good reason for doing it at that moment.
-    Who wants to add this backstory in now, the character or the author? The right answer is always the character.
Your characters have histories, and as the author, you need to know them. But, your reader doesn’t. And, our characters may not be ready to reveal their history, either. Let your characters drive when and if something from their past should be revealed. In the case of Joey waiting for his turn to jump off the cliff into the pond, he’s anxious, terrified, and feeling all the emotions he experienced on the plane. His memory is triggered. Joey brought the flashback in, not the author.
I have a fabulous recipe for Pumpkin bisque. The instructions say to add cream at the simmering stage, refrigerate overnight, and reheat when ready to serve.  Instead, I wait, and add the cream during the reheating step. By delaying the addition of the cream until it’s absolutely necessary, the taste and texture of the bisque is much better. 
Listen to your characters. Trust your readers. Then, the backstory in your novel will be like the cream added at the perfect time to make savory bisque. And, your readers will ask for seconds.