Authors' Tips - A to Z of Writing: B - Backstory

Dear readers and writers,

Welcome to a new series of blog posts 'Authors' Tips - A to Z of Writing', where eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Reet Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – will post on various writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week. Complete list is at the end of this post

Today I am writing on 'Backstory' an integral part of story writing.

The Definition

‘A backstory, background story, back-story, or background is a set of events invented for a plot, presented as preceding and leading up to that plot. It is a literary device of a narrative history all chronologically earlier than the narrative of primary interest.’ - Wikipedia

Essentially the Backstory is a significant narrative which tells us about the history of a character at the start of the main story, or essential story elements which define the setting and make the readers care about their characters. Remember the emphasis is on essential and significant elements which have an impact on the character’s motivations and the story.

Let’s consider the following passage, which is a brief backstory of the protagonist Esha Sinha from the novel ‘The Bodyguard’ :
Esha’s father, a retired state department employee, never gave her the affection and attention she craved as a child. A broken man after his elder son’s death in a road accident. An accident where he not only lost his first-born but also his legs in the accident and he blamed Esha for all his miseries, just because she had insisted that her brother accompany them to the first day of her new school. Her mother too was lost in her own world of Gods, prayers to manage her own sorrow. 
As Esha grew she tried to be a son for her parents, but they never saw her efforts, pain, and guilt. They spoke to her only when they needed something materialistic from her. She earned, took care of them. She even refused to marry the man she loved. But nothing earned her the love from her parents.

Though the story starts when Esha is assigned as a Bodyguard for her employer. The backstory plays a significant role in painting a picture of Esha as a mature, serious, no-nonsense woman.

The Treatment
The backstory can be revealed using flashbacks, character’s reminiscences, or during a conversation between two characters.

As an author, we have to be careful how to reveal the history since the backstory takes a reader into the flashbacks which acts as a roadblock to the pace of the story. Every time the narration goes into the flashbacks, character’s musings, or recollection it puts a brake to the forward momentum of the story.

The Mistakes
Sometimes authors reveal too much history in the opening pages of the story. This amounts to telling the readers—stop don’t go ahead, first listen to me. Sometimes the story goes on and the readers do not have the adequate picture on a character’s motivations. And in another example, the story starts with a terrific first chapter and the second chapter deals with only the backstory. All these are examples of bad handling of the background information.
A good storyteller builds up a rich backstory for their characters and plot, but reveals it cleverly during the course of the novel, subtly and timely. It is also important to understand that not everything needs to be told as long passages. Drop a word or two and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.

Read your written words and question whether the information is really required for the readers to take the story forward and/or to make them understand the character’s motivation. If the answer is ‘yes’ then go ahead, else delete it. Think from the perspective of the character. If in doubt just omit the backstory, probably it’s not needed if it’s creating doubts.

The Conclusion
No matter from where the story begins, there always be a backstory. Key is to create the right balance, listen to your characters and slowly reveal the information during the course of the novel without taking away the pace of your masterpiece.

All the best!

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Authors' Tips - A to Z of Writing : Complete List

Authenticity in Writing: Adite Banerjie
A is for Anti-Heroes: Reet Singh
Authorpreneur: Devika Fernando

ABDCE Plotting Formula: Preethi Venugopala

Building a Routine, Backstories, Beta-readers and Backup: Preethi Venugopala
Blogging as an author: Sudesna Ghosh

Balancing work, life and writing: Saiswaroopa

And more to come...

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