As writers we are often tempted to begin a story by explaining the backstory, telling readers everything they need to know about the main characters and bringing them up-to-date on what happened in the past. Don’t. A plot is the meat of a story, and it needs lots of seasoning to hold the reader’s interest. Give just enough information about the past to add spice and prevent confusion. Let your readers figure things out as they go along.
Telling too much at once is considered an “information dump.” It slows down the action and interrupts the forward movement of the plot. There are better ways to reveal the important details of the backstory.
1. A prologue: It can show the critical past event or details that the plot depends upon. However, many experts don’t recommend prologues, and some agents and editors say they hate them. I see them frequently in the suspense books I read, but as a newcomer to the publishing world I’d not use one myself.
2. Dialog: You can bring in information as part of the dialog between characters, but if it sounds contrived you’ll annoy the readers. Dialog is tough enough to make realistic without throwing in lots of backstory, so use this technique sparingly.
3. Memories: Remembering the past can reveal its effect on the present without the reader actually having to be there. This can be shown via internal pondering or by dialog.
4. Flashbacks: These scenes take the reader back in time to see what happened. Done well they can be helpful; done poorly they disrupt the flow of the story. I’ve seen them done both ways and don’t personally care for either. I like things to flow from beginning to end, without having to figure out timelines.
There may be other ways to share backstory without resorting to an information dump, but these four are the ones I’m most familiar with. Using them in combination may work better than depending on any one of them to fill readers in on what happened before the real story started.
If you’d like more information about backstory, you might want to take a look at these sites:
Edit October 28, 2009: Agent Rachelle Gardner has an outstanding post on backstory on her blog today. Click here to read it.
How do you like your backstory—served all at once, or a little at a time? What do you think of flashbacks? Do prologues annoy you?