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Writing tips: How to add backstory without the dreaded info dump

backstory, writing tips, helena fairfaxAs a writer I’d just love to start my book with a first chapter called something like: “Backstory – read it here“.  That would be a brilliant cop out.  I could just list all my characters and their lives, something like this:

Sarah, the heroine, is a circus clown.  Her dad left her when she was five, her mum is an alcoholic, she has two brothers but they don’t get on.  She is kind and witty, a bit untidy, her childhood has left her with a distrust of marriage and family life.

Phew.  My work would be done, and then I could get on to the fun part of actually telling Sarah’s story in the present.  So what exactly is wrong with starting a story in this way?

  1. Well, you’ve probably noticed from my piece about Sarah that it’s very dull.  I want my readers to care about the characters.  Even though I’ve dumped a load of info about Sarah, it’s still hard to get a sense of what she is really like, and so the readers probably aren’t too interested in reading on.
  2. I’ve “told” the readers what Sarah is like, rather than letting them find out for themselves.  I want my characters to come alive, as though they are real people.  If the readers get to know Sarah gradually, through her actions and dialogue, they will be much more immersed in the story.  I’ve told the readers Sarah is “kind and witty“, but it’s very important not to just tell the reader what they are supposed to think.  And if the reader forms a different opinion about Sarah to mine, then that’s fine, as well.  We all have different opinions about people.  That’s exactly how it is in real life!
  3. I’ve given a lot of information about Sarah at once.  As a reader, I hate being bombarded with facts.  It makes me feel I’m back at school, trying to learn something for an exam, and I can even start to feel quite stressed!  It’s much better to dripfeed the backstory gradually, so the reader can absorb it easliy without a huge effort of memory.
backstory, helena fairfax, writing tips
Click image for backstory pain

And now the hard part.  How can you get backstory across in a subtle way?  Here are a few options:

  • Dialogue.  Take this extract from Sophie Weston’s excellent novel, The Cinderella Story.  The heroine is talking to a teacher at her school:

‘You know, people keep telling me you’re a tear-away.  You don’t care about school.  You hardly ever do your homework.  But you don’t seem like that in my class, Joanne.’

No one had looked at her like that before.  So interested.  So warm. 

‘Oh.’

‘Now why don’t you tell me why you really ran away from home, hmm?  The real reason?”

Well, that was impossible, of course.  What could she say?  My so-called aunt hates me and her husband is a drunk who hits me?

In those few sentences, we’ve learned loads about Joanne, without it being too in your face.  You just have to watch with dialogue that you don’t make it clunky.  Don’t write things like, ‘Do you remember that day in 1997 when we met George, the man who later became our stepfather?’  That just sounds weird, and jolts the readers way out of the story.

  • Write about the character indirectly, using their voice.  It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, so here’s another great example, this time from Barbara Hannay’s A Bride at Birralee:

Callum Roper slouched against a veranda post and glared at the distant could of dust.  In the outback, dust travelling at speed meant one thing – a vehicle heading this way.

He wasn’t in the mood for visitors.

Turning his back on the view, he lowered his long body into a deep canvas chair and snapped off the top off a beer.  He took a deep swig and scowled.  Truth was, he wasn’t in the mood for anything much these days.  Even beer didn’t taste the same.

How long did it go on for, this grief business?

Again, we have an excellent idea now of location and Callum’s introvert character, and the fact that he’s grieving, all in a few easy sentences.  (Although I’m sure they weren’t that easy to write :)  )

Fitting in all the backstory in an interesting and subtle way is one of the most difficult things writers have to do.  In the novel I’m writing at the moment (working title Revelations) , the heroine is a widow, with a very complicated past.  I have rewritten the opening chapters four times, trying to get it right.

I recently had a really good tip from another writer.  If you feel a scene that you’ve written isn’t working, go through and highlight in yellow all the parts that are referring to the past.  See what will happen if you eliminate them altogether.  There’s no need at all to force feed your readers information about the past right from the start of the story.  A lot of the time, readers actaully enjoy discovering things bit by bit.

backstory, writing tips, helena fairfax
Return from the Stars, Stanislaw Lem

Apart from romance I also read a lot of sci-fi, and one of my favourite books is Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars.  At the beginning of this book, the reader is thrown into a world with absolutely no backstory and no explanation from the author.  This novel really sticks in my mind, because when I first started reading it, I turned page after page thinking, what the hell?  I was totally bewildered.  But this is exactly the effect Lem was after.  The author is describing an astronaut’s return to planet earth, at a time so far in the future that the world is a place he no longer recognises.  The astronaut is completely disorientated.

If Lem had filled me in on the backstory right from the beginning, I would have understood what was going on…but I wouldn’t have shared the astronaut’s sense of disorientation.  I was completely immersed in the hero’s feelings during the opening scenes.  It is a masterly novel, and a classic example of witholding backstory to brilliant effect.

Are there any novels you’ve read where you think the author got it right with the backstory?  Or got it hideously wrong?  Are you a writer?  Do you struggle with backstory as much as I do – and do you have any tips??  If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

Jera's Jamboree/Talk of the Town
This post is one of Jera’s Jamboree‘s Talk of the Town linked posts. Click the image to read another great article!
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26 thoughts on “Writing tips: How to add backstory without the dreaded info dump

  1. The only comment I can make about backstory is that it doesn’t belong in the beginning, it has to unfold. I remember reading somewhere J. K. Rowling said that was the problem with her early draft of Harry Potter–giving away too much, too soon. Lawrence Block, who writes pretty sharp mystery, recommends starting the book with Chapter Two. Get into the action immediately. Essentially flip the first and second chapter. If you start with the action, you can reveal the backstory–how that person got into this mess in the second chapter because by then the reader is hooked. That makes a lot of sense to me.

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    1. Hi Elle, thanks for your great comment. I’d also heard that tip about starting in the middle of the action. You’re right, it makes sense. I might re-read some Harry Potter, and see how Rowling went about it – getting some tips from a master!

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  2. In one of my stories the heroine had been left as a newborn on the steps of a hospital. I waited until the second chapter, when it was her birthday, to note she received no cards from her family because she had none. Then I gave a very brief backstory – her abandonment plus growing up in foster homes.

    Maz. ^j^

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    1. That’s an inventive idea Marion. It certainly takes a lot of ingenuity to find ways to get the info in seamlessly. In my present WIP I have now just bitten the bullet and gone for a prologue. I know a lot of people frown on this, but it really seems to me the best solution at the moment. Unless inspiration strikes and I find a way around it!

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    1. Thanks Joy. Backstory is so hard to get right. I’ve just started a novel I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages. It has a really interesting premise. Five pages in, and the info dumping is so bad I almost want to put it down :( It’s ruining a great idea

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  3. Great post Helena, and so very useful, as I am in the process to re-write once again my Scottish novel! I know I am always tempted to spell things out and explain what makes the characters behave they way they do, but you are totally right. Let the reader make their own mind. I loved the excerpts and your tips about having some back story in the dialogues. Thank you, and I hope ‘Revelations’ is going well (I like the title, by the way).

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    1. Thanks Marie! The title finally came to me – like a revelation! :) I hope your rewrite is going well. I’m looking forward to reading your Scottish novel, and I hope you have a successful summer!

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  4. Great post, Helena. Backstory is a real bear to write, isn’t it? I have found, after many hours of trial and error ( BIG errors!), that what works for me best is a little bit of dialogue, retracing some back history for someone who knows nothing about the MC, and doing a short backflash in thoughts. In my novel The Freedom Thief, which will come out in November, my MC is a 14 year old boy living on a slave-run plantation but who hates slavery. When I needed to show the reason for his view of slavery, I did it in a backflash where he thought of the first time he had seen a slave being beaten for some infraction of the rules, and how that scene had stayed with him for the next 4 years. It was a short paragraph, about 5 or 6 sentences, and yet it laid the foundation for his feelings from the age of 10 on. It was concise and to the point, but it was very short. That seems to work for me.

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    1. I think you’ve hit it there, Mikki. Dialogue, and a short (short as possible) backflash in thoughts works really well if you can manage it.
      Your book sounds intriguing! I’m looking forward to release. Thanks for your comment!

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  5. Great post, Helena, and I had to laugh when I read the bit about starting with chapter 2. In the first book I wrote, the first TWO chapters were back story. I ended up cutting them out, adding a flashback (brief) later on, and starting with chapter three.

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  6. Hey, Helena. Great post. Back story is certainly one of my struggles. I’ve come to realize what I write first–maybe as much as three chapters is going to be back story that will be cut. I seem to have to write all of that to get myself to the place where the story should start. LOL It’s sort of a pain, but there it is. Some of that stuff gets dropped back in in small parcels in the characters internal dialogue or in a dream sequence.
    I think your prologue is just fine. Sometimes it’s the only way for the story to work. Allison Brennan uses them quite effectively in many of her books. Also, Donnell Bell, in The Past Came Hunting has a great action packed prologue. Thanks for an informative post.

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    1. Thanks, Marsha. I haven’t read that Donna Bell novel, but will see if I can download it. I don’t mind prologues at all if they work – just I know some publishers/editors try and get writers to avoid them like the plague

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  7. Hi Helena,
    I’m at that point now with a sequel.I feel like I’m starting where the first book left off, but I’ve got to get enough back story in to introduce my characters to new readers. I did start off with dialogue, but one person told me to add detail as thoughts along with the dialogue. It just didn’t flow right to me. I guess I’ll figure it out. I’m finding this second book much harder to write.

    As always, I appreciate your insight and helpful info.

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    1. Hi Leona, I hadn’t thought of the difficulties of the sequel! Of course, some of your readers will know the characters, and some not. That must make it doubly hard. I hope you manage to resolve it. Maybe you could try reading a few other series, to see how other authors manage it? Good luck, and thanks for your comment!

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  8. Helena, with the first book I wrote, I ended up cutting TWO chapters of back story. I still have them saved in a folder — I’d done a fair amount of research for them, and that was the only way I could bring myself to cut them.

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  9. I must admit the back story is boring when too much is told as you pointed out so beautifully in this blog. Thanks so much for the examples too to irradicate information overload, or as my crit group calls it “info dump.” Every story I write, I learn something about how to improve my writing and back story is one I will be focused on this time and in the future.

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    1. I’m definitely focused on backstory at the minute JQ – because I’ve been struggling! I’m grateful for all the tips in the comments. Hope it’s been a help to you too, JQ. Thanks for coming!

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  10. Great post and examples covering subtle ways to work in back story. Although, when reading one of those door-stopper novels with dozens of characters, I wouldn’t mind an appendix with info-dump blurbs about each character.

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    1. Yes that would be good Jeff!! I think some of those historical sagas have family trees to help out the reader. Always seems like a lot of work to me! But it certainly hepls explain the backstory. Thanks for your comment!

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