Well placed SNIPPETS of information—remember, just a sentence here or two, no more—can be great for pulling in the reader. Make it a brief thought of the character, in close Point of View, not narrative. And even then, remember…what we consider ‘imperative for the reader to know’, most often time—isn’t. Yet!
A great litmus test for deciding whether something stays, or goes, is this:
Ask yourself, “Is it crucial for the reader to know this?”
Then ask, “Is it crucial for the reader to know this NOW?”
Then act accordingly.
That said… Backstory is not inherently bad.
When you’re writing that first draft and you realize that what is flowing from those rapidly typing fingers of yours is backstory—LET IT COME! This is the place where you get to know your characters, on the page. Even if you do characters sheets or free form character biographies, there are some things you won’t find out about your characters until you’re in the story and things start taking a life of their own.
So when you recognize backstory in your first draft (or if you’re like me and you write and edit, write and edit, as you go), copy that portion of backstory and paste it into an Excerpt document. My Excerpt document normally swells to at least 5,000-7,000 words (give or take) as I’m writing a book. I drop stuff in and mark it for later. Then when I reach an “ah ha” moment (those gradual epiphanies throughout the stages of a novel), I run back over and grab those sentences and blend them in. (It’s great for bolstering word count on those days!)
Backstory is crucial to the writer as we write because it tells us the “why” behind the character’s motivation. It gives the emotional connection we need with that character in order to write their struggle with intensity and authenticity. But the reader doesn’t need to know the “why” behind the character at the outset. Probably not even at the middle. In fact, to give it to them prematurely robs them of the full reading experience, and robs your story of the deepest emotional impact.
So, I’m headed back to my manuscript to move what my critique partner flagged on page 78….to page 157, maybe even farther than that, we’ll see. And my story will be the better for it.
Ah…I’ve so much yet to learn! Don’t you just love writing!