Backstory is an area in which writers often get tripped up, especially when first starting out. "I have to tell you about where he came from and what matters to him and why he's traumatized by the sound of bells and why there's bad blood between him and his archnemesis!" the writer says. "Otherwise, how will you understand what's going on, and why will you care?"
This can lead to gobs of exposition in the first
chapter: a bunch of throat-clearing before the real action starts. But I
generally say, in answer to the question of how much backstory we need:
As little as possible. And sprinkled throughout the book, instead of
Think about how we get to know people and the
world. Upon meeting a new person, we don't immediately exchange
autobiographies. We get to know people over time, slowly. They might
reveal one detail of their past one day, another detail later on. In the
meantime, we're engaging with our new acquaintance in the present, and
we're learning a lot from how he speaks to us and others, how he
behaves, what he does.
We observe whether someone's actions are
gentle or rough, thoughtful or careless, generous or selfish. We can
tell, within a short time, whether the people around us are impetuous.
Funny. Forgetful. Wise. Brusque. Gossipy. Shy.
We also learn,
fairly quickly, what they care about--do they talk about their kids?
Bring in new baked goods from the recipes they're always trying? Put up
photos of their latest ski trip? Ask you to join in on a fundraiser for a
charity? Leave books lying around? Invite you to the latest foreign
By showing what our characters are doing now, we can
reveal a lot. And when the villain first shows up, it can raise tension
if we just hint at bitterness between protagonist and antagonist,
rather than rushing to supply a page's worth of explanation on why the
two can't stand each other. We can dole out the clues as needed--only
what's needed to understand the scene in front of us.