Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Importance of Backstory

A short post to share a small insight...

I read two books recently. In Book 1, I felt connected to the characters. I believed their stories. I believed their relationships. In Book 2, the characters and their relationships felt like cardboard cutouts with no real depth. It was disappointing because this story could have been really great. I wanted it to be really great. In trying to figure out the difference between these two books, I decided it had to do with backstory and, linked to that, the rule that gets pounded into our writerly brains: show, don't tell.




In Book 1 the author shared, in little bits over several chapters, incidents from the two characters' pasts. This helped to SHOW the depth of their relationship, and it was easy to believe that they were best friends. In Book 2 I was told, "They were my best friends," or "I'd developed a crush on him recently," but I wasn't SHOWN anything to back this up. WHY would they be best friends, and WHY would she have a crush on him? I wanted to know a little about their history in order to come to these conclusions myself, instead of just being told.

So. This stuff they tell us to do? Like dropping bits of backstory here and there (not leaving it out, and not burying the reader under one ginormous infodump in chapter 1) and showing, not telling? It makes a difference! And you can very clearly see it when you read a good book and a not-so-good book back-to-back...

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7 comments:

Cynthia said...

Info dumps, esp. in Ch 1, can be overwhelming. At the same time, a solid back story does help me understand the character more. So it's all about the craft of weaving that all together in subtle tones...Btw, I like your new profile pic!

Rachel Morgan said...

Thanks, Cynthia!

Charity Bradford said...

Yes, yes, yes! This is so true, and perhaps one of the hardest tricks to balance. Thanks for the reminder!

Andrew Leon said...

Even if you don't reveal the back story, it's important for the author to know what it is just so they s/he knows why the characters are doing what they're doing.

Lauren said...

Scattering backstory throughout the book really does add depth to the characters. I hadn't thought of that being linked to "show, don't tell" before. That's very true. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've become better at the scattering...

The Golden Eagle said...

Backstory is definitely important. Even a book is primarily focused on the present, character's can't seem like they've sprung out of nowhere (unless it's a very specific kind of book, I guess . . .).