I’ve spent the last week reading a stack of short stories all written by super talented teen writers. They had believable characters, funny and realistic dialogue, and interesting conflicts and plots.
But, well over half of the stories suffered from the same problem. What was it? They had giant chunks of back story which bogged them down.
It’s super important as a writer to know a character’s back story, so you can put them in believable situations and have their reactions and actions be consistent with who they are and where they’ve come from.
However, even though you took time to figure all that out, readers don’t need to know every detail.
If you include too much, your story bogs down. If you don’t include any, readers don’t empathize with or understand the characters as well as they might.
Here are four steps I use to decide how much back story to include and where to include it.
1) Trust your reader.
In many stories, teen writers want to explain everything to make sure the story is clear. In an essay you’re writing for English class, that’s awesome. You definitely want to explain all of your points and tie everything back to your thesis.
However, in a story, you don’t need to do that as much. Readers, like you, are smart. They can figure things out on their own, and it can get annoying (as a reader) if you explain too much. This often happens when writers show a scene and then summarize it in a telling statement or a big chunk of back story.
Let me give you an example. Say a character has a fight with her mother. She storms to her room and slams the door. You don’t need to then say, “Some days her mom made her crazy mad and it all started in the first grade when her mom……” Trust your reader to figure out that the character is angry at her mother and her mom has made her angry before. It happens.
Another example might be a passage on setting. “Winter wouldn’t go away. Snow lay three feet deep on the ground, and no green peeked through the deadening white even though the calendar read ‘April. The whole cold weather thing was so annoying. She’d hated winter since…'”
To break this second example down, look at the first sentence. Is it necessary? Not really because the details in the following sentence describe the situation in the first sentence. Some of this can be pretty close to telling vs. showing. Then in the next part, unless the reasons she hates winter are absolutely crucial to understanding the conflict or plot, cut it. Your reader doesn’t need to know it. They want to get on with the story.
2) Decide what your reader must know to understand your story and ONLY include that.
As the writer, it’s important that you know many details about your character, but just because you took the time and effort to discover those details, doesn’t mean you need to include them in your story. In fact, if you do include all of it, you’ll bog your story down and bore your reader.
Once you decide on your plot and your characters, decide what the most important details are that the reader must know in order to understand the story. For example, say you have a story about a peasant fighting a dragon. The important details might be that this peasant is known as a great fighter among all of the other peasants.
We don’t need to know that he was an orphan or that one time the princess spat on him. Though those might be details that develop his character and make him angry, you don’t need to include long descriptions about those incidents.
For example, in the first scene of The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel’s mom decides she’s depressed and needs to go to Cancer Support Group which Hazel wants no part of because, in her words, “it’s depressing as hell.” There is a clear conflict: Hazel vs. her mom.
We also know that Hazel has cancer, but that whole back story is implied. We don’t know what kind of cancer, when she was diagnosed, or her prognosis. Knowing that she has cancer and hates support group is enough to pull us into the story and get it going. We’ll find the rest out later.
3) Start your story with action, not back story.
You want to introduce your characters at the beginning of your story, but you don’t need to introduce every detail of their lives. Instead, throw them into a scene with a conflict. Tell the reader only what they need to know to understand what’s happening in that specific scene. You can fill in necessary details as you build your story.
Probably half of the stories I read this past week had almost a full page or two at the beginning that could be cut. When I pointed out, “Your story starts here on page two,” 100% of the writers agreed. Some objected to deleting that much, but they understood that they really didn’t need it. Starting with the action made the story much more interesting.
4) Weave the back story in, in small pieces throughout the story.
The final strategy for back story is to weave it in. Share small bits and pieces, in phrases or sentences, not entire paragraphs or pages.
A great example comes from Divergent. Tris says right at the beginning on page two, “Today is the day of the aptitude test that will show me which of the five factions I belong in” (2). Veronica Roth doesn’t go into a several page long explanation of what the five factions are, what the aptitude test is, or why Tris has to take it today. Eventually we find all of that out because it’s important information.
But, it’s not crucial to understanding the action on the first page. It’s enough to know that this is a BIG day and Tris is nervous about it.
So, how do you apply this to your stories?