Handling backstory

When I was asked to judge a writing competition, I was surprised how easy it was to divide the entries into two groups: the possible winners and the also-rans. So I looked at the entries again to find out why. The task was to write the opening chapter of a novel and what divided the good from the not-so-good entries was the way they handled the background information to the story.

Technically that’s called exposition, but don’t worry about the word if you don’t want to. What matters is the skill involved in telling your readers the information about your setting, your characters and the situation that they need to know in order to understand your story.

NEEDS is the crucial word in that sentence. You may know that your main character is 32 and loves the colour blue, but do your readers need to know that too. If neither of those facts are crucial to the story, the chances are that they don’t.

Only give your readers the background information that is absolutely necessary, and don’t even give them that until you’re sure you have to. The skill is to include just enough facts in your opening chapter to let your readers identify with the main character’s situation while leaving enough intriguing gaps to keep them turning the pages to find out more.

As an example, suppose you start your story with your main character hiding under a hedge from marauding soldiers. The danger will immediately capture your readers’ attention, but you’ll lose it again if you suddenly cut from the action to an info-dump – a section explaining who your character is, who their parents are, where they grew up and why they are in this mess. To keep your reader involved, stick with the action and weave the most vital facts into that.

For the opening of a novel, the vital facts are the ones that help the readers know enough about the setting to start making pictures in their heads.  If that character under the hedge hears horses’ hooves, we’ve probably got a historical drama. If he hears the shrill cry of a dragon, it’s fantasy and if the ground shakes with the pounding feet of robot warriors, you’ve got sci-fi.

If you want to see how the experts do it, I recommend that you read the first few pages of Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. If you haven’t got those books to hand, follow the links to Amazon.co.uk and use Look Inside to read the openings. You may even get hooked enough to read the rest of the stories. 

Aim to use the same degree of skill in your writing, weaving the background information into your story so subtly that it’s almost invisible. If you need to get over a fact, try to work it into a scene that also moves the story forward.

 I stood on tiptoe, struggling to reach the diamond.

“Let me help” said Dave. He stepped forward and pulled the diamond from the statue without having to stretch and without checking for trip wires.

“Idiot!” I hissed as the high-pitched shrill of an alarm cut through the still night air.  

We know both characters are in trouble. But we’ve also learned that Dave is the tallest of the two.

Dialogue is a useful way to impart information, but it must sound natural and it shouldn’t involve one character telling another something they already know.  So avoid speeches like:

 “Well, my son. As you know, you have an older sister and I enjoy woodwork.”

Make a scene instead.

“Let me do that,” said Dad, reaching out to rescue his best saw.

Sam tightened his grip on the handle. “I can manage. I’m not a baby.” He hated being the youngest in the family. Even Emily tried to mother him, and she was only two years older than him.

That scene gives us the same information more subtly and also helps build Sam’s character.

The temptation to include more information than necessary is particularly strong if you’ve done a large amount of research into the background of your story. But your readers have chosen to read a story, not a textbook, so don’t bombard them with facts about oil exploration, strain gauges or nuclear energy just because you’ve made the effort to learn them. As with all other information, only include it if it’s crucial to the plot.

Pace your information and work it into the story at the speed your reader needs to have it. But don’t hold it back too long. Your reader might feel cheated if your character only reveals he’s a black belt karate expert in the final fight. It’s better to introduce that idea earlier without making a big deal of it.

The reverse can be true too. If you give your readers what sounds like an important piece of information early on, they will assume it has something to do with the plot and expect you to use it. So, if you do tell them the main character loves blue, they’re likely to want to know why that matters.

Which brings us neatly back to only giving readers the information they actually need.

Diana Kimpton

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