Last week, we talked about backstory, about ways to fold in information about our characters’ past, in ways that don’t bore our readers to tears. This week, I want to share some techniques for examining backstory in works in progress.
Character Sketches: Many authors create extensive character sketches prior to writing a novel. For purposes of practicing your backstory, challenge yourself to create a new type of character sketch. Record only those character elements that are vital for the current story. Rank those elements, in terms of importance. Consider where you can seed those elements into the main narrative, planting the least important items first, then the more important ones, ending with the final element that makes the entire character make sense.
This exercise will help you to identify the elements of backstory that are truly important. It will help you to spread out those elements throughout your work, rather than “clumping” them in awkward character introductions.
Playwriting 101: As a writing exercise, force yourself to convey all backstory through dialogue. Focus on the particular tone of your characters; make sure they remain true to themselves as they convey the information you need them to convey. Attempt to write all backstory-heavy scenes with no “stage direction”, with no additional language to supplement the spoken words.
This exercise will help you to verify that backstory is indeed central to your characters and their plot. If your characters can’t discuss their backstory with words that are natural to them, then consider whether they actually need to have those elements in their background. (Note: Your characters may be unhappy or uncomfortable with their backstory, but they should understand it, in the fibers of their being.)
Penny For Your Thoughts: At the beginning of a chapter, grant yourself a total of ten cents that you can spend on backstory. Each time you divulge an element of a character’s past, remove one of the pennies from your stash. When you have depleted your money, write the rest of the chapter without including any new elements of backstory.
This exercise will help you to quantify how much backstory you include in your narration. It will also help you to spot “infodumps”, massive quantities of backstory delivered at one time.
Highlight the Past: Using a highlighter pen, work through the opening chapters of your novel, marking each use of backstory. After completing your mark-up, review the manuscript, paying attention to sections that are extensively highlighted. Consider using alternate methods for presenting backstory, focusing on whether every single fact is vitally important at that stage of the narration. Delete or move backstory, based on what you discover. Ideally, you can work this exercise with your entire manuscript, leaving time between the marking up and the reviewing of the highlighting.
This exercise leaves you with a literal roadmap of backstory trouble spots in your manuscript.
If you try these writing exercises, let us know how they work for you. And if you have questions or comments about backstory, now’s the time to share them in the comments section!