Back story is the name given to what has happened before the story starts.
It can be very, very challenging to handle correctly.
We writers have a real dilemma. Modern readers won’t give us lots of time to set the scene and share the back story. Courtesy of our modern short attention spans, and also what we’re used to - readers expect to be plunged straight into the action. Screenwriters are advised to go in to the scene as late as possible and leave as early as possible (what's called In Media Res, Latin for 'in the middle of things'), and it’s very good advice for novelists too.
Readers want things to happen. They don’t want to hang around with lots of description. So, based on this, start your story with the story's dramatic question, i.e. the crisis or conflict.
Actually, no. Not easy. A problem, actually. Readers want to launch straight into action … BUT … they also need to know who our characters are. They need, above all, to care about our characters.
They need to have an investment in whether our character gets what she wants/solves the problem/etc.
They need to understand why this conflict or crisis is such a big deal for our character. (This last point doesn’t apply to every crisis. We don’t need to explain, to take an absurd example, why our heroine wants to escape a burning building. But we might need to explain why this pregnancy is a problem. Or why she really, really, needs this job and so the redundancy notice is totally devastating rather than merely problematic).
So we have a couple of options. One is to start the story much earlier than you were planning. Start the narrative where the back story starts. Take as long as you need to explain who your character is, where she lives, what her life circumstances are and so on, and then introduce the crisis, once your reader knows all the information she needs.
It’s an option, but I absolutely don’t recommend it. The danger with this is that you risk (actually, you almost guarantee) losing your reader’s interest. They’ll allow you maybe two or three pages to set the scene, but much more than that and they’re likely to get bored and switch off.
What readers are interested in is conflict and change. Back story is usually boring to them.
Another option is to use a prologue. But you know, that’s a risky one too (although it’s more doable than the first option). The problem with a prologue is the same: it’s not the story. It delays the start of the story.
You can use prologues, if you do them well, and if you make them intriguing enough to keep the reader’s interest. (See the section on narrative hooks for more on how to keep the reader’s interest.)
Another way to handle the back story is to use flashbacks.
Begin your story with the crisis, introducing the dramatic question and then flashback to the back story. The reader is more likely to remain interested because she wants to know how the crisis will be resolved, so you’re not risking boring her as much.
The problem here, however, is that you risk frustrating her. ‘Never mind that’ she might be thinking, ‘is the heroine going to escape the blaze? I don’t care that she was the most popular girl in school or that she wanted to be an actress. I just care if she gets barbecued or not.’
Stories are forward-moving … a flashback is backward looking. It stops the story dead.
Either keep the flashback as brief as possible, so it doesn’t frustrate the reader, or bring the reader with you deep into the flashback so that she gets interested in that too. The latter option is trickier, but sometimes necessary.
A third solution, and it’s one of my favourites if the story permits it, is to explain the back story through dialogue. Have your heroine (or hero, of course) tell her or his back story to somebody.
It’s the one time you can get away with telling-not-showing. I used this technique in my first novel Looking Good (now known as 'Careful What You Ask For'). I had my heroine Grainne and her friends at a dinner party, and there was a stranger there to whom they all told their life stories. Briefly and succinctly as you would to a stranger, giving just the salient points.
Because the dinner party was happening in the ‘now’ of the story, it’s not frustrating the reader by going backwards. And I made sure that the dinner party itself was integral to the story, rather than just a device for explaining the back story, by using it to foreshadow was to come. It wasn’t very integral to the story - if I could, I would have had more happen at the dinner party, but I couldn’t, and I was pleased anyway with the way it served its purpose.
Be careful with this device, however. You need to make sure that it’s not contrived. The information should flow very naturally from whatever situation you’ve created. Avoid, at all costs, something really clumsy, like: “Hello, I’m Jane and I’m 33 and I live alone but I used to have a boyfriend but he left me and I’m very sad about it but I’ve just met a new man and …” That’s the cardinal sin of info-dumping.
Another way of introducing the back story is to do so gradually and subtly, interweaving it carefully and cleverly with the current story.
For sure your character has a back story. There’s a reason why s/he is the way s/he is. Your character doesn’t have to go on and on about it however.
Indeed, it’s better if s/he doesn’t go on and on about it! That way lies wallowing and melodrama and all sorts of stuff which won’t enhance your story. But you need to refer to it all the same. Your character didn’t land on Earth fully formed.
(Unless, of course, you’re writing science fiction and your character did land on Earth fully formed! But even in this case - either the alien is just a plot device and doesn’t need characterization, or it’s a fully-rounded character and does.)
Depending on the situation, a passing reference to the back story may well be all you need. Say a character suffers from low self-esteem, and his current business isn’t doing well. You could have him think bitterly: “Ha! Dad was right when he said I'd never amount to anything".
Or, even more subtly, you could have his wife encouraging him: "Darling, you will make it. I know you will.” Don't mind what your father said all those years - what does he know?" Note that here we're not even saying what the father said, but we get the general flavour of it.
So, in summary, there are five ways to provide the back-story:
- Begin with it.
- Current dialogue.
- Interweaving it into the current story
- A mixture of the above four.
Finding the best solution is up to yourself.
It’s part of the balance of writing and outlining your stories. It’s part of the challenge of writing, and sometimes there have to be compromises, and it’s part of the skill you bring to the job how you manage these issues.
Wouldn’t it be boring if somebody could tell you: ‘Always use x to get your back-story told’?
Don’t forget, however, that you don’t have to - indeed, you shouldn’t - tell all about your character when we first meet her. Just tell enough to make us care for her and what’s going to happen to her. (And also don’t forget that the reader is on your side. She’s picked up your book and is reading it, she’s predisposed to liking the character and caring about what happens. Just don’t blow it!).