All characters and situations need backstory. The backstory is what happened before your story begins. There is backstory for characters (how did their experiences and relationships affect them) and there is a backstory for your world or situation (how the zombie apocalypse began). Writing backstory is easy compared to knowing how much of it should be included in your novel.
I love creating backstory for my characters. I become immersed in their world. Once I get going, they pretty much write themselves. Experiences, friendships, accidents, holidays, lovers, develop into the building blocks of their characters. It’s what makes them tick and act the way they did. A parent forgetting a birthday. A friend sleeping with their spouse. A broken leg on a ski trip. All these events make the character who they are and motivate them to behave the way they do in the story. But the reader doesn’t need to know every detail about their past lives. Taking the reader into the past takes them out of the story.
The struggle is real
This is definitely something I still struggle with. When I write the first draft, (or as Jessica Brody calls it, the discovery draft) much of that writing is backstory. I am learning about my characters, what makes them tick, what makes them react the way they do, and so forth. It is a journey of discovery. However, most of that does not make it into the final product. If it did, the novel would be well over 150000 words, with about 60,000 of those words not moving the plot forward.
But it’s so fascinating. Why wouldn’t the reader want to know?
It’s fascinating to me because I am creating the character. And even if the breakup scene is one of the most beautiful and tender pieces of writing I have ever done, if it is not necessary for the reader to know, I need to resist the urge to take the reader on a journey deep into the character’s past. When that vignette is finished, the reader is removed from the forward momentum of the story. Essentially, the plot-train has left the station and the reader is no longer on it.
It takes practice. It takes resolve. It takes experience. Listen to your critique partners. Read some comps and see how they manage backstory. Don’t be afraid to hit the delete key. Who knows, you might be able to use that scene in another story.
Let me know how you manage backstory.
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