Lately, I've been reading a novel for a friend. It's her first foray into writing a novel, and I'm the first person (aside from her husband) that she's let look at it. And she wants me to help her make it better. So I will.
That's the backstory. And you know what? You don't need to know that to really get what I'm going to be talking about in the next little bit. So, if this were a novel, that above paragraph should be cut. Sure, it gives you a sense of where this post came from, but you don't need it to understand the advice I'm offering here.
She's got an interesting story, and interesting characters. But like so many first time novelists, she's making the mistake of thinking we need to know everything the characters before we can get to the story. This is very clearly stopping the action. In fact, in some ways, the action doesn't have a chance to get started, because telling me what someone's done, who they were in the past, doesn't move the story forward. Oh sure, we think it does. "You've GOT to know she had puppies as a kid! And lost one! Or you won't understand!" Are you sure?
So, here's the question to ask: Does the audience need to know this RIGHT NOW to understand what's happening RIGHT NOW. If the answer is "nope," or even "not really..." then rethink why you're giving out the information here and now. Is it paragraphs of backstory? Yikes! Is it one great line that gives insight? Go for it. But sparingly.
As many authors and editors before me have said, each scene should do at least two of the following three things (the first time I remember hearing this was at Magical Words--more backstory for you!):
1). Develop the character
2). Move the plot forward
3). Provide backstory
It must do at least two of these things most of the time. If a scene can do all three, you're golden.
So, ask yourself, "What does this moment/scene/chapter accomplish?" Furthermore, "what does the audience know that before this they DID NOT know?" If the answer is "nothing" you've got a lot of work to do on the scene--or maybe not. Maybe it should just go.
Backstory enriches our understanding of character, but it pretty much by definition doesn't move the plot forward. And, especially early on, you want the story to move. Characters need conflict, danger, and urgency.
So, I've encouraged the woman I'm reading for to cut backstory. To focus on the now and keep her MC in the moment, experiencing.
Backstory can also lead to that most pernicious problem: telling.
Readers want a great story, but they experience that story through your characters' experiences. And backstory fits into this as well. In real life, when we meet someone, she usually doesn't stop and say, "hey, let me take an hour and tell you all about my history!" She'll give a snippet or two that're relevant. "Oh, you went to Ohio State? I went to Michigan! Go Big Ten!" Or "Hi! I'm your waitress this evening. Bob over here will be helping me out."
As we experience more with people, we learn more about them. So on page one, the MC might be a plucky lawyer who occasionally does work for the Public Defender's office. And on page five, we might learn she's a single mom. But why she moved back home, how she got to be a single mom, why she chose public defending, all that can come later, when she meets the man she's defending. When she hears the gruesome details. When we need to know.