Helping Writers Become Authors

How to Tell if You Should Show Your Character’s Backstory


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 imaginations 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 readers of the sense of weight given by the 7/8th of the iceberg floating under the water of our stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you think theres such a thing as revealing too much backstory? Tell me in the comments!

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