When Not to Tell Your Character’s Backstory

This week’s video compares two movie adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel to discover how we can best convey our characters’ backstories.

Video Transcript:

In other recent posts, we’ve discussed the value of backstory, even to the point of writing your backstory as your story when it’s the more interesting of the two. But, generally speaking, that’s going to be the exception to the rule. Backstory is actually at its most powerful when we don’t tell it—or rather when we don’t show it. The strength of backstory is its looming shadow. Readers know it’s there, they see it’s having an effect upon the characters, but they don’t always need to know the nitty-gritty details.

As a case in point, consider the two movie adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel—the one made in 1934 with Leslie Howard and the one made in 1982 with Anthony Andrews. The films are very similar in their telling of this classic story, with the exception that the much longer 1982 version includes almost a full hour detailing Sir Percival Blakeney’s courtship, marriage, and subsequent discovery of his wife’s apparent treachery against a doomed family of French nobles. In the 1934 version, these events comprise the backstory and are related only in bits and pieces throughout the body of the film. And, in my opinion, the earlier film is the stronger of the two because of this very thing.

Aside from the fact that allowing backstory to function as backstory streamlines your book to much a greater degree, doing so also allows you more leeway to bring the readers in as partners in your storytelling. If we can involve their imagination in helping us tell the story and fill in the blanks, half our battle in engaging their interest and emotion is won. The ballast provided by backstory gives our stories greater depth and meaning and opens up the potential for interpretation. If we turn too much of our backstory into the story or illustrate too much of it via detailed flashbacks, we rob our readers of the sense of weight given by the 9/10ths of the iceberg floating under the water of our stories.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think theres such a thing as revealing too much backstory?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Yes, I think there is a time when there’s too much back story. In my novel, I have a nearly 10 page scene where one character tells another character a story (within the story) thus explaining the background and origin of the country she is in, and why the 2nd character will be critical to the history of the 1st country. But I felt like I revealed too much all at once. How can I get the story to read like a novel instead of a history book? What would you suggest?

  2. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if the information is worth sharing, it has to be in the story for a reason. It has to advance the plot. If it matters to the story, then it will also matter to the characters. Usually, this means you can maneuver the scene into a search for answers by one or more of the characters. If the characters have a legitimate reason to know something, you can then turn their discovery of that info into an interesting and important scene. Intersperse your info with dialogue and thread it throughout the story like breadcrumbs, so the reader is always keen to discover the next clue.

  3. Hannah Killian says

    In one of my short stories, the mentor figure and the antagonist were once childhood friends and eventually lovers. They parted due to. . .stuff, and don’t meet again until nearly thirty years later. I want to add the backstory, but I think I’ll just write a really short prequel instead. I’ll still allude to their history in the main story though.

  4. Ruben Ramos says

    Wow, and here I had an ENTIRE 23-page chapter (after chapter 1) based solely around the protagonist’s backstory, thinking it was a good thing to do. I even named it The Past. Thanks for saving me the embarrassment of that one.

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