Effectively Integrating Backstory

Thursday, October 8, 2009
In my current WIP, I've been struggling with what to do with an important backstory scene. I felt it was integral to the story--something my readers would benefit from knowing. It set up the relationship between my characters, my MC motivation and weaknesses, sets up a strong undercurrent as it mirrors whats happening now, and sets up an ironic ending.

In short, including it would make the story stronger.

And yet weaker at the same time. Anytime you interrupt the forward momentum of the story by flashbacks, sometimes with prologues (as prologues set the reader up for A, then chapter one gives them A mixed with B, or even worse, straight B) you risk losing your readers.

So I was really struggling with what to do with this really important, life changing moment for my character. I toyed with using it as a prologue. I also toyed with splitting it into small chunks and delivering them as dreams.

Both of these methods seemed like I gave up as much or more that I gained. So I did some research. I studied out what some of my favorite books did with backstory information that the author considered integral to the plot.

One of the strongest influences was Catching Fire and Hunger Games (also Harry Potter). The MC father dies in a mine accident and the mother slips into depression, leaving the MC solely responsible for providing for her family at a very young age.

This moment was huge for all the same reasons my moment was. So how did Suzanne Collins integrate this information? She delivered it in small chunks, a paragraph or so at a time, when the character encountered experiences that drudged it up.

And it worked. It gave the character depth that couldn't have been achieved any other way.

So here's what I did. I wrote out the scene and saved it for later (when my book is a bestseller, I'll give it away for free on my website). Then I've delivered it in bits and pieces by way of memories. That way, my reader gets to piece together my character and her story one step at a time. This technique actually strengthened the story like a shot of steroids.

Here's a brief example from Daughter of Winter. My main character has just been beaten with a strap soaked in poison oak:

"The river felt so deliciously cool, soothing the itch and swelling . But only Rone's tight hold kept Ilyenna from bolting. She couldn’t swim, and anything deeper than her knees brought up memories. Memories of water bouncing her along the riverbed like a child with a new ball. She remembered seeing the sky through a window of ice. Ice she'd clawed at until each and every one of her fingernails had ripped off. "

Not only is the reader moving along with your character, they're learning a backstory that keeps them reading.

You probably all knew this already, but it really was a lightbulb moment for me!

Q4U: How to you incorporate backstory into your storyline?


  1. The age old question for speculative fiction writers.

    I am a world-builder. Before I write speculative fiction, I have an extensive setting and environment already fleshed out.

    When I write, the story just flows. This world-building is my rule-set which I contain the story.

    However, I do not reveal the actual pre-work by sneaking it into the story. I just use it as my framework.

    At the end of the novel, the world is alive because my character-driven story followed the "rules" of the setting.

    Hope this makes sense. There is a drawback to this method. If your setting isn't compelling enough, you only find that out at the end of the novel. Fixing that problem is time consuming.

    I have a writing method that works really well for me in fantasy and science fiction. Now all I need is an agent, ha.

  1. I don't think there is a right or a wrong way to do this. What you have done is exactly what you should do: move things around until you have what fits your story best. I have had a similar problem with a prologue/epilogue situation in my WIP (now a WAR - work at rest) setting up the story as a flashback. It eventually got changed to simply an epilogue.

  1. Anthony: I really like your ideas for world building. I wish I was more organized with that specific thing. Really, the world my characters live in is usually revealed to me piece by piece. It'd probably be stronger if I did it your way.

    Laura: I agree. There isn't always a right or a wrong. You just have to balance out the losses v the gains. I've seen Prologues work very well (The Hallowed Kingdom comes to mind). I've used them myself. But they're tricky.

  1. I'm glad you've had this lightbulb moment! Funny that we have to discover it ourselves. I remember going through this with Monarch. I'm still learning how to do it well. I use the "delivering it in tiny pieces at a time" method, and it's worked well.

    Most of the time we need less information than we think. It's hard finding that balance.

  1. Glamis: Being a balanced writer is the key to writing well, IMO. But it's really hard sometimes to find that balance. Do I have too much info, not enough?

    I need to find a new writer's group.

  1. We can form a writer's group if you like. It's just a matter of finding the time to do it. I know me and Natalie and Jenn have talked about creating one. We just haven't done it yet.

  1. Glamis: I think that would be awesome.

    Let me know.

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