Friday, May 22, 2009

Weaving in Backstory

Something I'm often asked about by new writers is how to add backstory into a manuscript without slowing the pace too much. This is an important question, because done incorrectly, backstory can halt a story in its tracks and pull the reader out of the book.

First off, be sure the backstory you want to add is important enough to merit inclusion. It has to add details or information that can't be conveyed naturally throughout the book, so give this a lot of thought. Many novice authors will make the mistake of "info dumping", usually in the first chapter, or even the opening scene. Most times all the information can be cut during the editing phase and woven in throughout the story. If this can't be done and the information is still necessary to the storyline, consider using it in either a prologue or flashback.

A prologue is generally shorter than a chapter, and always comes before the book begins. It sets up the story by showing the reader an important/life-changing event that occurred for a character before the main storyline begins. It may reveal certain motivations for a main character, or it may set up the suspense angle by leaving the reader wondering what happened, but it must set up some important element of the story. Otherwise, it doesn't need to be there.

A flahsback is another way to add backstory, and used sparingly, will avoid slowing the pace. Often offset by itallics, these scenes are written in the present tense, but show something that happened in the past. This can be done in a dream sequence, or as a true flashback, when something triggers a strong memory in the character's head. This can be very powerful, but again, it must be important enough to warrant inclusion, so use with discretion.

When you're doing revisions, make sure you're on the lookout for info dumps and see whether you can add in chunks throughout the story. If you can't and the details are still necessary, see if you can use one of the above tools. Your work will be better off for it.


Katie Reus said...

I love short prologues! When I was finished w/ Dangerous Deception I realized I hadn't given a deep enough look into the h/h's time spent together before the story started so I added a quickie prologue of their last night together almost two years before.

Kaylea Cross said...

And it worked well, too! I know editors dislike long prologues because they read more like a chapter instead of a scene that jars the reader into needing to find out what happens next.