[originally published May 2015; updated Dec. 2021]
This week, I was talking to some members of the Let’s Write Club who were struggling to introduce new characters. They wanted to include all the details about the character but realized that was bogging their story down which brings us to the question at hand, how do you introduce new characters or key historical information without bogging down your story?
We’re talking here about back story, which is the character’s history. If you’re unclear on what back story is, this post will help clarify.
It’s super important as a writer to know a character’s back story, so you can put them in believable situations and have their reactions and actions be consistent with who they are and where they’ve come from.
But here’s the key, even though you took time to figure all that out, readers don’t need to know every detail.
If you include too much, your story bogs down. If you don’t include any, readers don’t empathize with or understand the characters as well as they might.
Here are five steps to decide how much back story to include and how to include it.
1) Trust your reader.
Often newer writers want to explain everything to make sure the story is clear. But, pause before your add all the details.
Readers, like you, are smart. They can figure things out on their own, and it can get annoying (as a reader) if you explain too much. This often happens when writers show a scene and then summarize it in a telling statement or a big chunk of backstory.
Let me give you an example. Say a character has a fight with her mother. She storms to her room and slams the door. You don’t need to then say, “Some days her mom made her crazy mad and it all started in the first grade when her mom……” Trust your reader to figure out that the character is angry at her mother and her mom has made her angry before. It happens.
Another example might be a passage on setting. “Winter wouldn’t go away. Snow lay three feet deep on the ground, and no green peeked through the deadening white even though the calendar read ‘April. The whole cold weather thing was so annoying. She’d hated winter since…'”
To break this second example down, look at the first sentence. Is it necessary? Not really because the details in the following sentence describe the situation in the first sentence. Some of this can be pretty close to telling vs. showing.
Then in the next part, unless the reasons she hates winter are absolutely crucial to understanding the conflict or plot, cut it. Your reader doesn’t need to know it. They want to get on with the story.
2) Decide what your reader must know to understand your story and ONLY include that.
As the writer, it’s important that you know many details about your character, but just because you took the time and effort to discover those details, doesn’t mean you need to include them in your story. In fact, if you do include all of it, you’ll bog your story down and bore your reader.
Once you decide on your plot and your characters, decide what the most important details are that the reader must know in order to understand the story and the character’s actions. For example, say you have a story about a peasant fighting a dragon. The important details might be that this peasant is known as a great fighter among all of the other peasants.
We don’t need to know that he was an orphan or about that one time the princess spat on him. Though those might be details that develop his character and make him angry, you don’t need to include long descriptions about those incidents, especially right in the middle of an action scene.
For example, in the first scene of The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel’s mom decides she’s depressed and needs to go to Cancer Support Group which Hazel wants no part of because, in her words, “it’s depressing as hell.” There is a clear conflict: Hazel vs. her mom.
We also know that Hazel has cancer because of the support group, but we don’t know what kind of cancer, when she was diagnosed, or her prognosis. Knowing that she has cancer and hates support group is enough to pull us into the story and get it going. We’ll find the rest out later.
3) Start your story with action, not back story.
You want to introduce your characters at the beginning of your story, but you don’t need to introduce every detail of their lives. Instead, throw them into a scene with a conflict. Tell the reader only what they need to know to understand what’s happening in that specific scene. You can fill in necessary details as you build your story.
Often, writers start out with a lengthy backstory section on the first pages because it’s their way into the story. They’re orienting themselves, but ultimately, the reader doesn’t need to know all of that. When I point out, “Your story starts here on page two or page five or even in chapter three,” writers often agree. Some object to deleting that much, but they understood that they really didn’t need it. Starting with the action and the characters in the moment makes their novel work to pull the reader in from the first pages.
4) Weave the back story in, in small pieces throughout the story.
The final strategy for backstory is to weave it in. Share small bits and pieces, in phrases or sentences, not entire paragraphs or pages.
In a great example comes from Divergent, Tris says right at the beginning on page two, “Today is the day of the aptitude test that will show me which of the five factions I belong in” (2). Veronica Roth doesn’t go into a several-page long explanation of what the five factions are, what the aptitude test is, or why Tris has to take it today. Eventually, we find all of that out because it’s important information.
But, it’s not crucial to understanding the action on the first page. It’s enough to know that this is a BIG day and Tris is nervous about it.
5) Include it in dialogue.
Rather than adding giant paragraphs or pages and pages of exposition explaining your character’s history, try adding the details that need to be added in dialogue.
If you have a new character entering, maybe key elements of their personality or history come up in a conversation.
J.K. Rowling does this beautifully in the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid tells Harry that he’s a wizard. Both the reader and Harry learn at the same time, all through dialogue that Harry has no knowledge of Hogwarts or the wizarding world, that the Dursley’s intentionally kept it from him, that Dumbledore left letters for Harry explaining it, that Harry is famous, and that he’s a wizard. It is so masterfully done. It’s all backstory and it’s all in dialogue with fast pacing.
So, how do you apply this to your stories?