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What is backstory?
A history or background story; spec. one created for a fictional character or situation, esp. in a film or television series. Oxford English Dictionary
Even if you don’t put it all on the page, your characters (and settings) all have a fascinating, complex past that informs who they are and how they act. That’s their backstory: everything that happened to them before your story began. It’s really helpful to know your protagonist’s backstory intimately as it will explain their motivations, strengths, weaknesses and inner conflict, but your readers don’t need to know all the details.
What do children’s authors need to know?
A character’s past is just as important in middle grade and YA novels as it is in adult fiction, and it’s just as easy to go overboard. Too much character backstory brought in at the wrong time can result in an info dump and turn young readers off. The last thing you want when you’ve worked so hard to get children or teenagers immersed in your world is to jerk them out of the story with a dense passage of exposition and historical details that they don’t really need to know.
What you categorically want to avoid is a big block of character backstory or flashback right away. My advice is always this: if you find yourself leaving the present moment to fill in backstory (even short backstory, like, “we’ve been best friends since kindergarten”), you may not be starting in the right place.
The key questions you want to answer with any backstory you include are: “What makes this character tick, and why should I care about them?”
Your first few chapters or scenes should be action-heavy (with some nice introductory conflict) to get agents, publishers, and readers into your story. Once you feel that is established, you can start weaving in backstory or flashback starting in the second or third chapters. Why is the character’s situation XYZ? What is the significance of their objective and motivation? Which characters do we need to know more about in order to understand the present conflict?
BUT! Remember to keep up the balance of action and information, a crucial idea in keeping your pacing lean and mean and compelling. Whenever you give us a scene or paragraph of backstory, surround it with action, scene, and dialogue on either side.
Readers only perceive a story to be backstory-heavy and slow-moving when there aren’t injections of action and conflict to give the dense information a much-needed “lift.”
For more information about crafting and using backstory, take a look at these resources:
- How to weave backstory into your narrative – The Write Practice
- How to write backstory but not bog down your book – Now Novel
- Use these 5 tips to create backstory – NY Editors
- The complete guide to creating backstory in speculative fiction – Writer’s Edit
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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes