Backstory is just that; back story. The story of your ancestor’s past. The events that occurred before the present story you are telling. But it’s more than just your ancestor’s history. It’s more than just how he got here.
Backstory demonstrates your ancestor’s motivations for his actions in his story. What in his past history is motivating his actions and attitudes? This is your ancestor’s backstory.
The purpose of backstory is to deepen the emotion of the story by showing the motivations of your protagonist ancestor. To let the reader get inside the heart and mind of the character. It adds another layer of depth and texture to the story. By holding off on backstory until just the right moment, it can also add some great suspense.
Backstory is just not a place to dump your information. Choose your ancestor’s backstory wisely and don’t use it as an opportunity to impart all your family history research.
Naturally, the most popular place to share the backstory of your ancestor will happen in your summary, between the scenes. My one word of advice would be not to give it to us all at once. Always ask yourself what does my reader need to know?
Dialogue can also be used to reveal bits of backstory. It comes out more naturally and feels less imposed on the reader then in large chunks of information. Of course, you are limited only to reveal what the ancestor speaking knows.
The Drip Method
Creative nonfiction is often overflowing with long sections of summary offering backstory. But if you want to live on the edge try to sprinkle your backstory in through scenes and in small chunks between scenes. It is going to take a little more work on your part, but it will be the most rewarding for your reader. Dripping in backstory is particularly nice for a shorter story. You don’t want long-winded backstory that overtakes the scenes in a short story.
Flashbacks are an excellent tool for injecting backstory into a family history story. Choose carefully where you put flashbacks and don’t use too many of them.
If you’ve gotten through the beginning and middle of your story without the backstory, chances are you probably didn’t need it after all. If you spend a lot of time in the backstory, perhaps that is the story you should be writing.
Aside from knowing where to reveal the backstory, whether it be in summary, dialogue, flashback or scenes or a combination of these, it is equally important to know when to show your ancestor’s backstory. Remember backstory reveals motivation so holding off on backstory can help create suspense in your story.
Consider not revealing your ancestor’s history until at least the middle of your story after you’ve had a chance to establish the present story soundly. Ideally holding off until just before the climax, would make the most sense. At this point, offer your reader a clear understanding of your ancestor’s motivations right before the big last push to the climax.
It’s important to find the right moment when your reader can’t go on without knowing this information and without getting confused.
Of course, you can drop hints of your ancestor’s history throughout the story to make your reader care, but the big reveal of backstory should occur at just the right the time.