craft post by Anne-Marie Strohman
As writers, we hear all the time that you absolutely have to develop your characters’ backstories. (In fact, our SIDEWRITING TAKEOVER month included a number of writing exercises to do just that.) We can spend a lot of time laboring over our characters’ pasts–creating, inventing, discovering–only to have someone read a draft and tell us: “Take out all the backstory!”
Too much backstory can drag the pace of a story. Too little, and characters seem unmoored and unmotivated. So what to do?
What is Backstory?
First, let’s define the term. In Writing Irresistible KidLit, Mary Kole defines backstory as “The strategic inclusion of relevant information from a character’s or story world’s history that has bearing on current events.”
I first heard the term in acting classes. We’d read a script, then mine it for details of the past–ones mentioned in dialogue or that we could infer from the information on the page–and then we’d make up a past for the character that would influence the way we said a line, or the emotion of a scene.
The 4 Ws and an H
As writers, we do the same thing with our characters, but at the point of invention or discovery. When our characters do a thing, we can ask WHY, and that can lead us to uncover or invent parts of the character’s past. Then we can choose WHAT to include, as well as WHEN, WHERE, and HOW to include it. Those last three–when, where, and how–are crucial to backstory.
Ways to Incorporate Backstory
Backstory can play a significant role in a story–whether as a big reveal, a slow reveal, a reason for the action of the story, or a context for understanding a character or the story as a whole. It might be a sexual assault or a parent abandoning a child or a huge breakup or the loss of a beloved pet. In these cases, protagonists face their own pasts and the pasts of their loved ones.
But those big moments aren’t the only pieces of relevant backstory. A writer can include a mention in dialogue, or in a character’s interior thoughts. Or a long or short flashback, or a brief summary. Even a reference or a detail.
The Effects of Backstory
According to editor Cheryl B. Klein in her craft book Magic Words, backstory affects who characters have become and influences their actions and reactions: think Harry Potter–he is shaped by a pivotal moment in his past, one that he doesn’t even remember, and he spends much of the novels uncovering the backstories of Voldemort, his parents, and other characters.
Klein points out that backstory also provides emotional context for character relationships: think, Peeta in The Hunger Games. Katniss recounts a memory of him sacrificing his own comfort in order to help her when she was in need–he burns loaves of bread and takes a beating for it so he can give them to the starving Katniss. This memory sets up our sympathies for Peeta and establishes the basis for Peeta and Katniss’s relationship.
The Key to WHEN and HOW
Klein says that the key to backstory is revealing it at the right point, the point of emotional significance (the WHEN). In Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb cautions that when writing for young readers, we must aim for CLARITY–offering our readers graceful transitions to and from a flashback or backstory element (the HOW).
Backstory in Picture Books?
Picture books are an interesting case study. There seems to be little if any room in a picture book for backstory, yet even they can include slices of backstory that serve the story well, adding to theme and emotional impact.
For instance, Watercress by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, includes a family discussion that includes the parents’ memories of the home of their youth. A Different Pond by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui has a similar moment, where the dad tells his son about fishing in a pond at home as a boy in Vietnam. Emil Sher’s Away, illustrated by Qin Leng, offers different take on including a parent’s backstory. The protagonist is reluctant to leave for sleepaway camp, and to convince him that it will be okay, his mother mentions her own happy camp memories. When Mimi arrives for a visit, she challenges the mother’s version of events, showing the protagonist that the mom was super nervous to go to camp too. In all of these cases, the backstory provides essential context around character relationships and shapes our understanding of main and secondary characters.
Less common, but still important, are stories that include backstory from the child protagonist’s life. Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin, contrasts an immigrant girl’s memories of visiting the beach in Iran with her present experience of going to the beach in Brooklyn, her new home. Similarly, King of the Sky, by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin, shows the contrasts between a boy’s present day in cold, foggy England and the sunny, sweet memories of his life in Italy. In both cases, the protagonist’s struggle with conflicting feelings about their new homes, and the backstory puts those emotions into relief.
Even with very tight word counts, picture books may include succinct moments of backstory that enrich the characters and the world, enhancing both theme and emotion.
Backstory in Longer Stories
In novels, a writer has more room for backstory, but including only what’s relevant to the story helps avoid too-slow pacing. (Backstory can also be used to rein in the pace of an action-packed story. It all depends on what you’re working on.)
A novel can be built around the recovery of backstory, as in Pam Munoz Ryan’s Mananaland, where Max works to uncover his parents’ past as well as the history of his community. Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lai incorporates some big backstory reveals that shape our views of the characters, their motivations, and their relationships.
But backstory can also be more subtle, incorporated into small moments or in creative ways (watch for our post next week for some stellar examples).
Less Can Be More
For Janet Burroway, the author of Writing Fiction, the job of the author is to “decide just how little [backstory] you can use.” Often you can rely instead on reader inference. Just like in the acting exercise, we could surmise backstory from the words on the page. Readers can do the same as they read. As Burroway says, “Trust the reader’s experience of life to understand events from attitudes.”
So consider not just the WHAT of backstory, but also the HOW MUCH, WHEN, and HOW. Consider the effect of those choices on character, plot, pacing, and theme. The stories you tell are only made richer by backstory done well.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!
Choose a full draft of a picture book or a couple chapters of a longer story.
- Highlight any existing backstory. Does it come at the right time? Is it brief? Does it enhance character, plot, or theme? Take out as much as possible.
- Brainstorm possible bits of backstory to incorporate into the story. Try tiny pieces out in different places and see what the effect is.
- If backstory is a major part of your story, highlight the backstory throughout. Is it well-spaced? Does it come at pivotal emotional moments? Does it slow down the pace too much? Not enough? Just the right amount?
Our September Newsletter is out! If you haven’t had a chance to read it, CHECK IT OUT! To get the newsletter in your inbox every month,
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.