This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
What is back story and how much should you use? Opinions, as always, vary, but I think you should include as little as possible. Back story, happened in the past for your characters; it is not part of the story you are telling and too much will drag your narrative down.
So, let's identify back story. In a linear structure with a simple timeline (no flashbacks or skipping around), back story is anything and everything which happened chronologically before page one. So, what your protagonist ate for breakfast last week is back story. So is the argument she had with her mother last year, the three years she spent deep sea diving in the Caribbean, and, of course, her childhood.
It gets much trickier to identify back story when you're not talking about a simple linear narrative. If your narrative is constructed differently and it 'jumps around' in time, then you have to judge information on its relevance to your story, rather than when it occurred in your character's life. If you're planning on writing this kind of complex narrative, I'd recommend studying similar novels to see how they’re structured.
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Perhaps your character has a truly amazing back story. Perhaps you spent weeks constructing it. Perhaps, right now, you are throwing things at your screen and shouting "I can't cut the back story, it made my character the person she is".
I understand, I truly do, but the chances are your reader doesn't need (or want) as much background information on your character as you think. And the stuff that they do need (because it’s relevant to the plot) can be told in tiny bursts while the action of the story is happening.
Slip in the relevant details by showing how the characters interact in the now of your story. For example, if your character has an ex-husband, her acrimonious divorce can be referred to in passing but it doesn’t need a chapter-long explanation. If, however, the ex-husband has an active role in the book, then you can show the difficult relationship through dialogue and action. After all, what matters (to your reader) is the way they are interacting now, not what went on between them in the past.
Ultimately, if you conclude that your back story is too fascinating to cut and that what happened in your characters’ past is more important than the present-day action, you’re telling the wrong story …