If there is one thing when I read a book that irritates me more than nails on a proverbial chalkboard, it’s when the author resorts to backstory dump to fill the reader in on important details. Yes, sometimes there are pieces of information that it is absolutely crucial for the reader to know, but telling them outright through a mess of exposition is enough to make me want to throw a book across the room.
But before we go hurling books across the room, what exactly is backstory and why does so much of it get dumped?
Simply put, backstory is what happened before the book began. It can contain elements of a character’s background, pieces of their childhood or formative events within the last couple of years. It can be facts about the world the characters inhabit, like the politics or landscape of their world. Anything that is essential to the plot that takes place off-stage before the curtain goes up.
Of course, the easiest way to convey these tidbits is to tell the writer straight off. If the heroine had a bad break-up a couple years before and is now gun-shy, the temptation is to state somewhere in Chapter One, “Heroine had a bad break-up a couple of years before, and now she’s gun-shy.”
No! Please don’t do that! You’ve heard of the whole “show versus tell” thing, right? Well, backstory dump is the absolute worst form of telling instead of showing that can happen to your manuscript. I actually started (started, mind you, not finished) a book that began with one paragraph showing the heroine getting out of a car and approaching the front door of a house, then proceeded on to three pages of telling the reader about her ex-boyfriend, her mother’s long illness and death, the company she’d started, and the friends she’d gone through. Those kinds of information dumps might be okay for an obituary, but you do not want your book to die before it’s even started.
“But Merry!” you say. “The reader needs to know all of those things! How are they supposed to find out if I don’t tell them?”
Ah. As far as I’m concerned, there are two major categories of ways to convey backstory without making people want to throw your book across the room.
The first is to subtly hint that things are going on behind the pages through actions, emotions, and responses. You’re not blabbing about it all outright, you’re just setting the stage and letting the reader draw their own conclusions. Here’s one of my favorite examples of a wealth of backstory revealed through facts and observations about the present moment:
After the carriage wreck and a bit before the horses ran away, Lady Georgina Maitland noticed that her land steward was a man. Well, that is to say, naturally she knew that Harry Pye was a man. She wasn’t under the delusion that he was a lion or an elephant or a whale, or indeed any other member of the animal kingdom—if one could call a whale an animal and not just a very big fish. What she meant was that his maleness had suddenly become very evident.
George knit her brow as she stood in the desolate high road leading to East Riding in Yorkshire, Around them, the gorse-covered hills rolled away into the gray horizon. Dark was rapidly falling, brought on early by the rainstorm. They could have been standing at the ends of the earth.
“Do you consider a whale to be an animal or a very big fish, Mr. Pye?” she shouted into the wind.
Harry Pye’s shoulders bunched. They were covered only by a wet lawn shirt that clung to him in an aesthetically pleasing way. We’d previously discarded his coat and waistcoat to help John Coachman unhitch the horses from the overturned carriage.
“An animal, my lady.” Mr. Pye’s voice was, as always, even and deep with a sort of gravelly tone toward the bottom.
It goes on. Seriously, you need to read this book, The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt. It’s my favorite romance novel. As you can see from these opening 5 paragraphs, Hoyt reveals an astounding range of information about who the characters are, what their personalities are, where the story starts, and the circumstances that the heroine and hero find themselves in, and not once does she tell you explicitly that the carriage wrecked in a storm and they’re in trouble. It’s all about the physical descriptions, the subtext, and the reactions.
You can convey a lot of information without telling people outright. Why? Because readers are savvy people. They know what they’re looking at, and if given half a chance, they’ll put the pieces together and come to the correct conclusion. In fact, letting the reader figure details out for themselves through clues you give them as a writer gives them a sense of engagement and even ownership of the story. They are a part of it instead of just having it recited to them. That’s what you want as a writer.
The other major way to reveal backstory without beating your reader over the head with it is, frankly, not to reveal it at all. At least not at first and not completely. True, there are things that mean the world to your characters and inform who they are, but as a writer you don’t have to spend it all up front. Ease into it. Hold a little back. Give hints, show relevant emotions, leave a trail of breadcrumbs. You don’t have to spell it all out though.
Here’s another favorite example from a book I read recently, Widershins, by Jordan L. Hawk:
Clammy sweat broke out on my hands, and my throat threatened to close up. “I’m s-sorry, I have a prior engagement.”
“Ah, well. Another time, then. Mr. Osborne, if you’d kindly show me the map you mentioned earlier?”
I stood in the hall like a fool after they left, my hunger replaced by nausea. I couldn’t imagine sitting through a dinner across from Addison.
What could I possible say to him? “I’m sorry I killed your only child?”
And that’s how the section ends. We only find out gradually, through little hints here and there, what the story behind the death of the only child is…and it has a major impact on the story! But Hawk doesn’t spend it all up front. She weaves this crucial piece of the plot into the action of the story, only really revealing the whole truth in the book’s climactic final scenes. By then the payoff is just awesome!
That’s what you’re going for with backstory: payoff. If there are details before the book that are important to the story you’re telling, then they’d better be really meaty details. If they’re really meaty details, then it’s best to savor them and give them the impact they deserve. I can pretty much guarantee that if there is anything lingering before the first pages of your book that has bearing on the story you’re telling, those details deserve dramatic build-up, tension, and reveal. And let me tell you, statement of fact in exposition is not particularly rewarding for the reader. I mean, would you rather read an encyclopedia or a mystery? Think about how each format reveals information.
To make a long story short, dumping your backstory is a good way to bore a reader to tears. Those details are important, though, and deserve to be told as if they are important. Let the reader see, feel, smell, and discover the pieces of your characters’ lives that matter. You don’t have to do it in Chapter One. You don’t even have to do it in the first half of the book. Some things don’t even need to be stated explicitly. And remember, the more you engage your reader in your story, the less likely they’ll be to be able to put it down!