Backstory and Foreshadowing: are you showing or telling?

Backstory is crucial to building a relationship between the reader and the material. This allows the reader feel like they know the character like a friend: the anecdotes, stories, likes and disappointments the characters have gone through as though the reader has been privy to that information like a confidant. It seems easy enough, but there are a number of questions to ask yourself about your characters and plot planning:

1) What is the relationship between your major and minor characters? If they aren’t family, how did they meet? Is it authentic?
2) If it’s romance: did you provide enough (relevant and interesting) information about the main character’s previous (successful or unsuccessful) relationships? If it’s women’s fiction: what are the issues that the character has been dealing with that they bring with them to the present? If it’s mystery: what skills does the protagonist have to solve it and why?
3) Are you using backstory to foreshadow or is it building a bond between reader and text (as it should)?
4) Am I showing or telling the backstory?

But the ultimate question is, how do I weave backstory into my manuscript?

The most difficult part is preventing it from being ‘tacked on’ in a place that is too convenient. The key is to have provided enough backstory in the text (but not too early in the manuscript) before the reader needs to know it, and without the reader having known at the time that it was foreshadowing the events of the plot. Smooth application of relevant character history needs to constantly be worked at so that it doesn’t stand out to the reader and thus, lose the trust of the reader.

Advice:

  • Tread carefully when digressing for backstory, because coarse transitioning between the present and backstory is a common editing negligence that takes the reader away from the scene at hand.
  • Achieve the balance between too much backstory up front, not enough backstory, and backstory that does not have proper placement in the manuscript which can lead to obvious foreshadowing.
  • Build a relationship between the reader and the text through backstory that doesn’t pander to the needs of the plot, but provides a rich characterization.
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3 thoughts on “Backstory and Foreshadowing: are you showing or telling?

  1. Pingback: Authentic Writing: ‘write what you know’ or stretch your imagination? « Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

  2. Pingback: The True Beginning « Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

  3. Pingback: Balance and Backstory « Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

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