Reading yet another author blog entry, I found this wonderful summation concerning the use of backstories. I've long cautioned that you can't simply dump all your backstory on the first page, because readers can only process so much information at a time. Just like you only have a single person speaking each paragraph, and only deal with a single concept in each sentence—because otherwise, readers will lose track of your point as they try to juggle multiple topics at once—you also shouldn't dump more backstory on readers than they can process at any given time.
However, the blogger describes the situation much better than I can (I'm now asking myself why I even tried):
Make Your Readers Beg For Backstory
by Randy Ingermanson
If you want to kill your novel, the quickest, surest way to do it is to throw in a big lump of backstory on your first page. Or in your first chapter.
Yes, sure, I've seen published novelists start off with a boatload of backstory. I've seen jugglers juggling burning torches. I've seen an archer shoot an arrow through the balloon atop his wife's head. Blindfolded.
But all of these are risky behaviors. If you want to take risks, there needs to be a payoff somewhere. If you don't know the payoff, then you have no business taking risks.
Backstory, by the way is good. If you don't know your characters' backstory -- all the stuff that happened in their lives up till the time your story started, then odds are good that your story is going to be pretty shallow.
You want to know the backstory of your novel.
The trick here is to make your reader want to know that backstory too. The real trick is to make your reader beg for it.
You don't do that by piling it on in the first chapter, before your reader cares about your characters.
How do you make your reader beg? There are several ways, but they all come down to the same thing. You write a compelling story with strong characters and sharp plot twists.
A plot twist is an unexpected change in the story direction. Your reader thought she knew your character, thought she could predict what would happen next, and was delighted to learn she was wrong. That darned character zigged when he should have zagged. Why?
Most of the time, it's because of something in his past. There's a reason. And now your reader wants to know that reason. Now she's ready for backstory.
The rules for backstory are really pretty simple:
- Just in time.
- Just enough.
Just in time means only when the reader needs it and only when the reader wants it.
Just enough means that the reader doesn't need to know everything you do. Leave the reader wanting more, not wanting less.
Remember that at least one major category of fiction is all about discovering the backstory -- the mystery. Once you've got a corpse in the picture, the whole story is about figuring out who did it, why he did it, and how he did it. That's backstory, pure and simple. But until you've got a corpse, none of that is of any interest.
You have at least six good ways to give your reader backstory, when the time is ripe. Here they are:
1) Interior monologue
3) Narrative summary
5) A nonlinear timeline
Unfortunately, the follow-up link to read the rest of the article was faulty, and I've never bothered to join Authors Community, since they promise all kinds of knowledge but deliver little. :(