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Just Right Backstory

After a recent fine dining experience, book inc writer Shanda McManus found herself contemplating the importance of backstory and how best to reveal her character's past to the reader.

By Shanda McManus

October 12, 2023

My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary with a memorable fine dining experience. We chose a well-regarded restaurant with a tasting menu. The posh waiter introduced each dish briefly—spring pea agnolotti, smoked morel fondue, and sorrel. After we enjoyed the plate, he returned to ask us what we thought and divulged more details about what we were served. For instance, agnolotti differs from ravioli, being made from one square of pasta instead of two, and the wild morels were sourced locally in a nearby park. I found myself much more engaged in his descriptions after I had eaten the delicious dish. He gave us the relevant backstory of the ingredients after we were invested in the exquisite-tasting food.

This made me think of the challenge of incorporating backstory into a memoir or novel. Your protagonist’s backstory is critical to who they are and what motivates them to act. Essentially, everything that happens to your character before the book starts is their backstory—deciding how much to reveal to your readers and when are critical choices for the flow and momentum of your book. Your readers need some backstory to appreciate the growth and narrative arc of your character. If you give too much backstory your readers are bogged down and may lose interest. If you give too little backstory you risk the investment of your readers into your character.

The first decision when incorporating backstory is when or if to reveal the character’s past. Some stories do not need the backstory revealed at all. For example, in the classic movie Wizard of Oz, we never find out what happened to Dorothy’s parents, and it does not diminish the story. But in another famous movie series, Stars Wars, the slow backstory reveal of Luke Skywalker’s father is powerful and pivotal to the narrative.

Here are a few tips to help you decide when, how, or if to reveal your character’s backstory:

Ensure your readers care about your character first, like how I cared about learning more about the agnolotti once I tasted it. Avoid making revelations too early. Reveal the backstory when it is related to the real-time situation or action in your story. Make your reader want to know before you tell them.

Avoid info dumping. If you give too much information at one time, you risk overwhelming your readers and slowing the pace of your story.

Mind your transitions to avoid confusing your readers. Readers have to be able to keep track of real time action versus past action. Transitions should be clear.

Learn how to master incorporating backstory into your manuscript, and you will provide a reading experience that rivals enjoying a fine-tasting menu. Your readers will remember the origins of your character like I still remember where those succulent morels came from.

Shanda McManus

Shanda McManus is a family medicine physician. Her writing has been featured in Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Midnight & Indigo, and other publications.

Shanda McManus is a family medicine physician. Her writing has been featured in Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Midnight & Indigo, and other publications.