Does that mean backstory is a no-no for middle grade novels?
I think you’d have a hard time finding a novel without any backstory at all. As middle grade writer Laura Pauling points out, we need backstory for helping to create characters with depth.
Knowing some background about a character can help develop a character’s motivation (e.g., Harry Potter’s backstory of surviving Voldemort’s attack as an infant). And knowing what a character has gone through in the past can sometimes help us feel more emotionally connected to characters. So the trick is to somehow include the backstory so that it doesn’t get in the way of the real here and now story of the novel.
Weave it in gradually. This is the most common tip I see in articles about backstory. Avoid an info dump by giving key details about the character’s past in small pieces, rather than a long explanation.
Make sure it’s necessary. I think it’s so important to only include backstory where and when it’s needed.
Like other elements of your story, it has to be something that the reader really needs to know at that particular point in the story. Maybe it will keep the reader from being confused. Or maybe it shows why the character has made a decision. If it doesn’t have a purpose that helps move the story along, you might not need it. A lot of advice I’ve read (including Donald Maass) says not to include backstory at the beginning, when you’re trying to hook your reader.
Use only a little. Keep your backstory brief and to the point. (Remember, the Harry Potter novels, which at times seem to be built on backstory, are exceptions.)
Make it interesting or make it quick. If you are including some backstory and have found a natural place to bring it into your story, there are different ways to fold it in. You could just directly state it and quickly move on. Or you might bring it in through a brief memory, especially if you’re trying to develop an emotional connection to your reader. Flashbacks could be another way, but I don’t see those often in books for middle grade readers (they can be confusing).
Including backstory through dialogue is one way people try to avoid the “show not tell’ problem, but as author Elana Johnson says, this can be really awkward and unnatural sounding.
How much do you rely on backstory? Do you have any tips to share?
Links:*As always, if you know of any great posts on backstory, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here for our reference.
Elana Johnson, author of the YA novel, Possession, has some thoughts on using backstory for world building.Laura Pauling’s take on backstory.
Becca Puglisi of The Bookshelf Muse gives us some strategies for using backstory in this guest post at Sherry's Fiction Writing Tools.
At Writing While the Rice Boils, Debbie Maxwell Allen has a series of 4 posts by Randy Ingermanson that give us a thorough look at the topic of backstory.Over at Literary Rambles, Casey McCormick posts a great tip on how much backstory to include from one of her blog readers, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban.
Rachel Larow of Mommy Authors gives some tips on balancing backstory.
Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner gives advice on strategic ways to use backstory, especially in your novel opening.Author Jody Hedlund weighs in on how much and when to use backstory.
Kristin Lamb on backstory as the 4th deadly sin of writing.At the Query Tracker blog, Stina Lindenblatt talks about backstory.
Author Mary Carroll Moore talks about how backstory can help or hinder.