Backstory’s Emotional Weight

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When we invent characters, we need to know all about them, including where they grew up, childhood fears & dreams and more. Where does this information go? Where do you put all this backstory?

Backstory’s Emotional Weight

Two friends, writing vastly different stories, are struggling with backstory. One is adding backstory to enrich the story and the emotional lives of his characters. The other is writing a sequel and the whole previous novel is backstory to the new novel; she can’t be sure the reader has read the previous book, though, so she must work in some of that story into this one.

I’ve written before about backstory, flashbacks and how to keep backstory out of openings.

But one question keeps coming up.

Where do you put backstory?
Backstory is there for it’s emotional weight. The story’s current situation is emotional, but for some reason you want to up the stakes. By adding backstory, you can strengthen the motivations of the character and make events mean more. Backstory should add irony, poignancy, regret, hope, or other strong emotions.

That means you put backstory at the point where it most directly impacts the emotions of the characters and/or the reader.

Where EXACTLY do you put backstory?

For example, can you interrupt a scene with backstory? Yes. But you’d better have a really strong emotional reason to do that. Again, you put the backstory at the point where it impacts the emotional weight of the story. Exactly there.

Some ways backstory can impact the story’s emotional weight.

  • Interpret actions/dialogue/events. Some scenes, such as action scene, are better left intact with any flashbacks coming later as the character reflects on the events. Then, the flashback helps the character interpret the scene’s importance or outcome.
  • Help make a decision. Sometimes, though, a scene leads up to a character making a decision. Flashbacks provide needed information to help the character make the best (or worst) decision.
  • Change relationships. If the backstory comes in dialogue, instead of as a flashback, it can change relationships.
  • Story twist. If your plot is too straightline, a good bit of backstory can add an interesting twist on events.

How else do you use backstory?

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2 Comments
  • Holly Cupala
    June 13, 2008

    An exceptionally useful post. Thank you, Darcy!

  • Marie Helen Turner
    June 18, 2008

    Darcy, just what I needed to read! You’ve not only confirmed what my critique group say I need to do with the backstory, get it out of the opening chapter, you’ve explained when & where to do it. Thank you!