This article is by Jaiden M. Pierson.
As an author, one of the hardest tasks you must undertake is to put everything that is needed into a story, without putting any more than is needed.
Your readers have to put a lot more time and energy into your book than they would into a movie or television show. For that reason, most novels need to move relatively fast. Even if the novel is slow paced, it must at least be interesting from page one.
This is what makes backstory tricky. In most cases, it’s only a part of the main plotline in the loosest sense; it’s more of a prequel to your story than anything. But sometimes, you need it. Perhaps there’s a bit of information your reader needs to know about a character, in order to understand and sympathize with their actions. Perhaps there’s a bit of atmosphere a proper backstory can loan your main plotline.
But when you spend too much time on it, it can ruin the momentum of the book. Your reader is traveling along the main plotline, when they’re suddenly asked to take a side trip. Spend too long on it, and the arch of the main story can lose its flow.
The Right Amount
So what is the exact right amount? The truth is, it all depends.
It can sometimes just depend on the author. In “IT,” Stephen King offered backstory on virtually every character, even minor antagonists who spent very little time on the page outside of their backstory. Most authors could not get away with this, but Stephen King pulled it off masterfully. The book also deals with a lot of elements such as childhood, memories, and the past coming back to haunt us. Near constant backstory fit well into a story like this.
Consider how your story is being written and if backstory will interrupt it too much. You don’t want to interrupt flow, so consider putting in backstory when things have slowed down a bit. Insert it when the characters have reached a natural point to stop and reflect a bit.
How to Present It
This brings us to another point, in which you must decide how the backstory is presented. Do you use flashbacks, or does a character just explain things through dialogue? Or do you write a prologue?
If the backstory can be covered quick and cleanly, dialogue is sometimes the better option. If things need to be a bit more detailed… such as introducing atmosphere using events that transpired before the main plotline, you may have to use an entire flashback.
Then, there’s the question of should you cover the backstory at one time, or sprinkle it here and there. Typically, the larger a backstory you need to fit in, the more you want to spread it out. Offer small bits as they’re needed, and no more.
Some authors feel the best place to put these is just after a stopping point in the story, so that it doesn’t interrupt flow. Examples would include placing backstory bits at the beginning of a chapter, or arc.
So what is the answer? When backstory adds to your story, put it in. If it just slows down the pace without adding vital information, leave it out — no matter how much it hurts to cut it out.
As a reader, how do you prefer to encounter backstory? As dialogue, flashbacks, prologues, or something else?
As a writer, what techniques do you use to convey backstory?
In general, do you feel that fantasy novels have too much backstory? Or do you enjoy that aspect of the genre?