|image from nomapnomad.com|
Author Chris Abani says writers could avoid a good many problems if they applied some simple math to their works-in-progress: Identify which parts are in present time and which are backstory. Cut all the backstory. Then add enough back to achieve a ratio of 70 percent present time to 30 percent backstory.
For effective backstory, it’s helpful to know more than you say. If your character suspects she’s falling in love, but she’s leery because of a previous relationship in which she got hurt, you as the author should know the details of that previous relationship. Then you can decide how to parse them out within the context of your book—if you decide to use them at all. Sometimes less is more, with the doling out of backstory serving as a source of tension.
A few options for introducing the backstory of that example I gave, the old love gone bad:
· The teaser: “There was Kenny. But she wasn’t going to think of that now.”
· The hint: “Kenny intruded, as he always did, never mind the seven years and six hundred miles that separated them.”
· Interior monologue: “Mark wasn’t Kenny. He never would be.”
· The scene: Add an extra return on your page, and then spin backward in time, using subtle markers for the shift. “High school was a roller coaster through hell, thanks to Kenny. On the night of their senior prom . . .” The scene can, of course, turn into a series of scenes, if you decide a good deal of the tension exists in the past and is best parceled out all at once.
The hint and the teaser involve promises to the reader—reasons to read on, to find out what the heck went on with this Kenny guy. Used judiciously, these techniques also help you avoid the herky-jerky effect of tugging the reader forward and back through too many backstory scenes. As helpful as backstory can be, the reader’s biggest concern is generally the forward momentum of the present moment, however it’s defined in the book.
Advice on backstory and other ways to turn good books into great books can be found in Deb's newest release Write Your Best Book. Dozens of "Try This" exercises included!