Writing backstory isn’t a sin. It’s part of the creative process. Writers at all levels of development often explore their story by writing reams of backstory. They learn about their their story by writing each character’s history in scenes that will never make the final cut, creating a comprehensive view of that character through time. The pages of a novel are the tip of the story’s iceberg, the writer having imagined a weighty mass of dramatic material supporting those few pages she decides make up the part of the story she shows. At some point, the writer must decide what part of the story she wants to show, and this then shapes the writer’s approach to how she uses backstory in the overall plot. Does this mean that the pages and pages of backstory a writer generates are doomed to be lost? Certainly, much of it sinks below the water line, supporting the primary plot but unseen by the reader. But some of it remains above the surface, in the form of backstory that gives the primary plot context and depth.
How can a writer determine when it’s dramatically effective to venture into a character’s backstory? The most certain way is to design the action to provide a dramatic prompt for the playing of that particular backstory at that specific time, and then to do what writers do best: tell a story. A writer can pen pages of backstory about a character, but if those pages aren’t prompted by the action, and the pages don’t tell a story, then the backstory will have little dramatic impact. A dramatic prompt gives the reader a reason to care about the backstory at that moment in the story or scene. A man in mourning sees a woman who looks from behind just like his dead wife, and this prompts a memory that’s key to the story. A woman being sexually harassed on the street remembers the last time a stranger called her a bitch, the surprised look on his face when he fell back onto the pavement, his nose broken. If the backstory is relevant to the action in the scene, then it’s more likely to work.
Another important technique is to explore backstory when the action in a scene or story pauses naturally. Stories have a pulse, or breathing pattern. At least, living stories do, and we want to write living stories. Writers can use this pattern to identify when to jaunt back to the past. Usually, something happens that creates a need in the character to remember, and then when the story rests for a moment, that memory dissolves/cuts into view. This technique avoids the problem of stopping the action to relate extended backstory, because the action is at rest for a moment, and the character’s need to remember something serves as the prompt to flow into the past. I call this concept the reflective pause, the moment for contemplation between bursts of action. In opera, the protagonist sings an aria during the reflective pause. In fiction, the character contemplates something from the past, something that serves the needs of the character in the primary story as it’s unfolding.