One definition of backstory is events that aren’t happening now but had a part in creating them. According to award-winning author Peter Selgin, “Whatever beginning we choose, there’s always another behind it, and another behind that.”
To use the backstory craft element effectively, writers of fiction and nonfiction can consider these three guidelines: Avoid putting it at the beginning of a piece. Use the right medium for the message. Aim for balance.
Backstory doesn't usually work at the start of a story because it slows the reader. Imagine a rail station master who announces a schedule delay then delivers detailed reasons why. While the information may explain long service will be out, especially in an emergency, what's usually first in importance is when you'll reach your destination.
Another consideration in effective use of backstory is the right medium for the message. Common fiction options include flashbacks, current scenes and dialogue. In nonfiction, you can include paragraphs explaining the history that led to a current event, for example, memories from an interviewee. But how can you tell which option is best for your project?
The answer depends on how much information you need to convey and how important it is. It’s generally best to convey only what's relevant to the piece and to present the information succinctly. This way you won’t slow the momentum of the work or bog readers down in a sudden influx of past events.
To decide which medium is best, consider where you are in the overall narrative. Do you need to slow the pace? Consider a flashback or informative paragraph. Do you want to build suspense? A smattering of dialogue or mini scene could be effective. As an analogy, take the ellipsis, which conveys words said but not recorded. In using backstory, pare down what you put into your medium to the essentials.
Another guideline is not revealing too much too soon. Instead, sprinkle bits and pieces of prior events throughout the narrative, to advance the story and reveal more about the people in it. And keep in mind that backstory can include elements as subtle as a scar on a woman's hand to a scene between a dying father and his daughter.
So, what's the perspective on backstory in a nutshell? Put it in the right place at the right time using the right amount of detail. Select the container as you'd select a gift box; pick the one that best fits what you're giving. Use only the information you need most at that point in your piece.
- For a great nonfiction reference work, see The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing, by New York Times editor Francis Flaherty.
- For a comprehensive, must-have reference on writing longer and shorter fiction, see 179 Ways to Save a Novel, by Peter Selgin.