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The Truth About Backstory

Do you know what your one defining moment was?  Do you even have just one?  How old were you when you figured out what you wanted to do with your life?  Do you even know what you want to do with your life?  Do you remember what you did in kindergarten? I know that I don’t.  Probably picked my nose and knocked a ton of shit over.

My point is that all of our pasts have holes in them.  Lots of blank stares, raised eyebrows, and shoulder shrugs.  Probably a lot of made up stuff too.

So here is the fourth post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better. 

Today’s topic is Leaving Holes in a Backstory, alternately known as We Don’t Care About That.

First and foremost, avoid the info dump.  It’s slightly useful, but unbelievably boring information.  And no, we aren’t fooled because you put quotations around it.  It’s been said a million…now a million and one times and it’s just as true as the first time it was said.

I don’t know about you all, but I love the mystery of an awesome character’s past.  A huge driver for pushing through eight more chapters at four in the morning is to find out what Really (capital R) happened all those days or years ago (this is actually the premise of a ton of books, right?).

And just like you or me, a character doesn’t have ten pages of records describing all the important parts of their life.  A reader can pick up a hint here, a line there, a thought back behind them, and piece it together themselves.  It’s much more satisfying that way, and it’s much more interesting.  Don’t relinquish your hold on a character’s backstory just to make the reader like them from the beginning.  

As an extreme, boring, and one-dimensional example: What is more interesting? A detective whose wife was murdered three years ago goes on a rampage of revenge against a man who kills his friend’s wife? Or, a detective (whom we like and cheer for because of who he is) goes on a rampage of revenge against a man who kills his friend’s wife, and towards the end of the book we find out what we’ve slowly come to expect – that his own wife was murdered six years ago.

And don’t forget to leave holes.  If I’ve met you the chances are that I don’t know the name of your childhood pet or the name of your high school, and I certainly don’t care to learn those things about your protagonist (unless, you know, it’s super relevant and you can disregard everything I just said).

So be mindful of how you reveal your character’s past.  Depending on how you do it, it can be one of the biggest and most powerful drivers of your book.

Seriously, though, what did everyone do in kindergarten? I think I mostly napped and had snack time, something wasted on five and six years olds when there are poor high schoolers (read: working adults) out there falling asleep at their desks.

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(Way to avoid info dump bro)

14 comments on “The Truth About Backstory

  1. Fantastic point! And I’m going to add to it a bit. If there was some hugely relevant point in your life (and by yours, I mean your character’s), you aren’t going to remember exactly what was said or done, you’re going to remember the overall, general story. And if it was traumatic, you’re not going to remember that much! This is a huge problem with witnesses in court because they don’t record things when traumatized, and aren’t even close to perfect when not traumatized, just because the brain isn’t perfect. So looking back it often tries to fill in details, or you just remember things like they were a blur that happened over five seconds instead of five minutes.

  2. Excellent advice.

  3. What a great point! Very interesting post. I think backstory can be important but also not as important as a lot of writers think. I think it is more important for you to know as the writer so you have a better understanding of the character, but that doesn’t mean the reader needs to know. Usually that ends up as an info dump. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Was wondering about this just the other day – thanks for answering my queries!
    And as for what I did in kindergarten? I ran around with all the boys because I was the absolute hugest tom-boy in the world. Needless to say, my clothes saw a lot of dirt in those days.

  5. I distinctly remember getting married to a little red-haired boy named Colin. And I could count to 10 in Hebrew. That’s pretty much it!

  6. You have been nominated for One Lovely Blog Award. I hope you don’t mind. Please do not feel pressured to participate. I just want to promote a few blogs that I feel others would adore as much as I do. If you’d like to pay it forward, you can check out the rules at http://adjustingyourfocus.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/how-rewarding/

  7. So true, about avoiding information dumps – they are boring to the reader. I like to sift through experience for the poetry of life. You blog is interesting.

  8. Queen of info dump and exposition right here *raises hand. Great post with some great advice, thank you 🙂

  9. Ah, I love Flynn Ryder 🙂 The info dump is such a drag. Better to reveal through dialogue and interactions as well. And even worse, is when it gets repeated in the next installment…

  10. 🙂 Well written, flowed well, easy to read. Love this piece.

    Kindergarden? I think I mostly napped and flirted with boys during nap time. Yep. Truth.

    xxo Carly
    http://www.sundaylovexo.com

  11. David — I don’t follow many blogs, but I love yours. Always good information presented in a palatable and enjoyable way. You’ve helped my writing become better, and I appreciate that so much.

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