From Rick:

In a past article, I dealt with the topic of backstory in your writing. I discussed where to place it and how much to use, and I linked to a couple of examples. First, check out that previous article and the examples in it.

DEALING WITH BACKSTORY

There is no simple answer to the questions of how much backstory to use and where to place it because each story is different. The writer must determine the amount and placement of the backstory based on the story’s needs, but the most important thing is to integrate it with the story, not spill it out in a few paragraphs or dump it into a flashback. The key thing is to keep your story moving forward and building.

If the backstory is of significant size and is essential to understanding the front story, then perhaps you should start your story with that backstory. However, no matter where you begin your story, it still needs to be interesting and compelling. And if your backstory is not interesting, then you need to make it interesting or leave it out.

The remainder of this post will consist of two versions of the same passage of writing. It’s the opening to my novel Vampires Anonymous (no longer available and which is part of a rewrite project of mine).

The first excerpt is a rewritten version of the opening with a big dump of backstory up front, starting in the second paragraph. This basically stops the story while the information is dumped on the reader.

The second excerpt is how I actually wrote it. They both give the same information, but they do it very differently.

Notice in the second example how I try to keep the story moving forward by staying in the character’s head. The backstory is drizzled in so it hardly feels like backstory. Both versions have the same opening paragraph, but in the first version, I lapse into a lot of telling, starting in paragraph two and running for the next three paragraphs. Version two is also a bit longer and continues the scene that I cut short in the first version.

Anyway, I hope these examples are instructive and give you some guidance and suggestions on how to integrate necessary backstory into your stories.

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VERSION 1: BACKSTORY DUMP EARLY ON

Adrian knelt on the pavement of the Detroit RiverWalk, next to the railing and bars that separated him from the water, and poised the razor blade over his left wrist. Above him one of the overhead streetlights reflected off the blade. He shivered. Tonight was a little cool for his favorite “You’ve Mistaken Me For Someone Who Gives A Damn” T-shirt.

He was only eleven when his parents died and he was sent to live with his Aunt on his mother’s side, and Uncle, who had made it clear he didn’t want Adrian around and only kept him for the small inheritance that went along with him. But that didn’t stop him from beating Adrian or his own son, Adrian’s cousin, when he felt like it. His cousin ran away from home in South Dakota to Detroit at sixteen.

Just after Adrian turned twelve, he stole money for the bus trip, packed his small suitcase, and joined his cousin. At thirteen, he had his first taste of drugs and it made him so sick he thought he was going to die. Cocaine gave him serious nosebleeds every time he’d tried it. And he was the only one he knew who was allergic to pot.

It seemed like only yesterday, instead of a year ago, that he’d won a new PC from a gambling debt. He’d thought maybe things were looking up for him when another of his friends taught him how to hack into other people’s PCs. So far, he hadn’t been caught. A couple of times he’d thought about doing it for a living.

Most of his friends were no better off than he was. No, that wasn’t completely true. Some of them had parents still alive, for whatever that was worth, even if they were abusive or drunks—or both.

The empty bottle of cheap wine stood nearby. One of his sometime friends thought maybe he deserved a present today, it being his seventeenth birthday and all. He’d tasted better, but it was enough to give him a light buzz and relax him. Of course, the wine was probably stolen, like most of the things he got from anyone who gave a damn about him.

He shivered again. He’d expected the wine would warm him up more than it had. Real cheap wine. He wasn’t buzzed much, either. Maybe all those bets he’d won for being good at holding his liquor had made him immune.

He stared down at the razor blade less than an inch above his wrist. “Is this a coward’s way out?”

No one answered him because no one, except stupid people who didn’t know any better, came out on the RiverWalk this late. Nobody around to watch him leave the world. “Lots of ways to die out here.” He tilted the blade and pressed the side of it against his wrist to feel the cool metal on his skin. Across the river, the distant lights of Windsor, Canada, stared back at him.

Suddenly, a nearby, loud splash in the water startled him. His left arm jerked up. “Ow!” His wrist stung, then it began to burn like from a giant paper cut.

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VERSION 2: INTEGRATED BACKSTORY

Adrian knelt on the pavement of the Detroit RiverWalk, next to the railing and bars that separated him from the water, and poised the razor blade over his left wrist. Above him one of the overhead streetlights reflected off the blade. He shivered. Tonight was a little cool for his favorite “You’ve Mistaken Me For Someone Who Gives A Damn” T-shirt.

The empty bottle of cheap wine stood nearby. One of his sometime friends thought maybe he deserved a present today, it being his seventeenth birthday and all. He’d tasted better, but it was enough to give him a light buzz and relax him. Of course, the wine was probably stolen, like most of the things he got from anyone who gave a damn about him.

He shivered again. He’d expected the wine would warm him up more than it had. Real cheap wine. He wasn’t buzzed much, either. Maybe all those bets he’d won for being good at holding his liquor had made him immune.

Most of his friends were no better off than he was. No, that wasn’t completely true. Some of them had parents still alive, for whatever that was worth, even if they were abusive or drunks—or both.

He stared down at the razor blade less than an inch above his wrist. “Is this a coward’s way out?”

No one answered him because no one, except stupid people who didn’t know any better, came out on the RiverWalk this late. Nobody around to watch him leave the world. “Lots of ways to die out here.” He tilted the blade and pressed the side of it against his wrist to feel the cool metal on his skin.

Across the river, the distant lights of Windsor, Canada, stared back at him. This was as good a place to die as any, more exciting than South Dakota had been—not that he particularly enjoyed living here with his loser cousin, the one who taught him how to gamble and run drugs to help pay the bills.

He lifted the blade away from his wrist and studied the clear, moonlit sky. “Why’d you have to go and die on me?” His words slurred a little. “Isn’t there some rule against parents leaving their kids all alone?” He was only eleven when he was sent to live with his Aunt Louise—his mother’s sister—and Uncle “I don’t give a shit about you, kid.” Their son, his cousin here in Detroit, ran away from home at sixteen because he didn’t like getting slapped around, either.

“It so wasn’t fair! My parents…” Adrian tried to blink away the tears he’d sworn he wouldn’t shed tonight. “…loved me.”

He sniffed back the snot running from his nose. Just after he’d turned twelve, he stole money for the bus trip, packed his small suitcase, and came here. At thirteen, he had his first taste of drugs—speed or X, he didn’t remember which. Whatever, it made him so sick he thought he was going to die. Cocaine gave him serious nosebleeds every time he’d tried it. And he was the only one he knew who was allergic to pot.

Must be drugs didn’t mix well with his Native American metabolism. His cousin didn’t seem to have a problem with any drugs, though. Maybe that was because he was only half-Native. Alcohol… now that did him just fine, once he learned his puke level.

It seemed like only yesterday, instead of a year ago, that he’d won a new PC from a gambling debt. He’d thought maybe things were looking up for him when another of his friends taught him how to hack into other people’s PCs. So far, he hadn’t been caught. A couple of times he’d thought about doing it for a living. “I coulda made enough money to get out of this hell hole if—”

Nearby, a loud splash in the water startled him. His left arm jerked up. “Ow!” His wrist stung, then it began to burn like from a giant paper cut.

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–Rick