Have you ever eaten a bad lasagna? There’s too much Ricotta and very little ground beef, cooked bland and underseasoned. No garlic. Tomato sauce poured from a jar instead of San Marzano tomatoes simmered in spices. Dense sheets of pasta, dry and crunchy. I’ve made many bad lasagnas in my time in the kitchen, until I learned the secrets from the Italian nonnas. The key is in layering the ingredients in equal parts. The long-simmered gravy gets ladled onto the bottom of the pan. Then layers of noodles along with ricotta and handfuls of mozzarella cheese, followed by more sauce. Another layer of noodles. Ground beef or sausage comes next. More noodles Cheese. Keep layering. Then add lots of cheese over the top. Cook. Pour yourself a nice glass of red. Eat. Mangia!
Writing a novel is the same way. Notice here that I said novel. Not to say that backstories don’t matter in short stories, but they are not as necessary in that short form. In the novel, backstory is practically an essential component to communicating your ideas. The way you handle a character’s history often times determines the success of your novel.
The key is to think about your novel as a lasagna and your backstory as the cheese. If you leave out the cheese, then you really don’t have an authentic Italian lasagna (sorry vegans). A character’s backstory is the necessary glue that holds the novel together and gives it cohesion and authenticity. Without it, you will have not have the rich characterization that a novel needs to succeed. The sauce and beef will slide off the noodles and your lasagna will be a sloppy, unorganized mess.
But you need the precise amount to create this delicate balance. Novels with excessive backstory irritate me to no end and force me to put a book down in boredom. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a character’s past (I really do), or find it unnecessary to the story, but too much personal history in one section takes me out of the plot’s momentum—and that’s the worst thing that can happen to your story. It’s like being on a date and being forced to listen to the person’s entire dating history. There usually is no second date after such a fiasco.
Ask yourself if elements of your backstory are needed to further your plot. In most cases they are. Sometimes they act as unnecessary filler, in which case the offending scenes MUST be cut. But assuming that all your backstory is essential to the plot, this is where you need to start the intricate layering process. Save some of the backstory for other parts of the novel where your plot needs to breathe. Or else intersperse it throughout in order to delay suspense and titillate your reader. Like garlic in your lasagna, a little goes a long way.
Another mistake beginner writers often do is deliver their backstory in one big dump. It’s sort of putting unseasoned beef into the first layer of your lasagna. Doing this is a plot killer. Your backstory should, in some ways, have an arc just like your main story. The spice in the beef’s seasoning should be just as flavorful as the sum of its parts. I’ve read many amazing novels that jumped back and forth in time, and where I couldn’t wait to return to the various time sequences to see what would happen next. All your backstories and subplots should have their own individual arc that feeds into the rainbow that comprises your novel.
Your characters’ past matters greatly, so don’t ignore it. Or ignore it at the expense of your plot. History informs the reader about your characters’ motivations and values, and allows us to see them as fully developed, three dimensional human beings. This depth will add complexity and nuance to your story, just as oregano and bay leaves will take your gravy to a whole new level (gravy is the Italian nonna’s term for marinara sauce).
So when making that next lasagna, be sure to layer your ingredients in equal parts. Season your sauce and beef beforehand. Leave out the brown sugar and chocolate. And make sure to add a good amount of that fresh mozzarella and ricotta so that everything stays together. In that way, the whole will outshine the sum of its parts. If you do all that, I guarantee you that your guests will gobble up the entire tray.