Some novels relate the events of a few days, or even less, while others span generations. Yet no matter how long a time period your story covers, there is always something that came before. Those events that impact the storyline are called backstory.
Most aspects of backstory can be inferred by the reader. For example, if your main character is a cop, most readers will understand that she knows police procedure, the laws of her jurisdiction, and how to handle a firearm. You don’t need to walk us through every day of her academy training to tell us this (although writers will happily do so, but more on that later).
Backstory is one of those things that, when done right, is almost seamless. You don’t even notice it. But when it’s done with a clumsy hand... Well, it can become obnoxious.
And then there’s the emotional impact of backstory. Imagine a novel where the author tells you everything you want to know about a character at the precise moment in the story when you want to know it. Sounds perfect, right? You meet the hero’s wicked step-mother, and right away the author tells you that the step-mother is a gold-digger out to steal the family fortune, and that she used to date the hero’s ninth-grade algebra teacher which is how she met the hero in the first place. Nice and tidy. But while this might be done with the greatest of technical skill, it can still leave the reader feeling disappointed. Why? What’s wrong with giving the people what they want?
The flow of information from the writer to the reader is like a dance. A striptease, actually. Of course the reader wants to see the goods right away, but on some level they also want to be teased, to have it parceled out in little bits that leave them wanting more.
So how do we accomplish this? If you’ve spent any time around writers, writing courses, or online writing forums, you’ve no doubt heard of the dreaded information dump. Or infodump, for short. Big lumps of raw backstory dumped into the narrative are no longer in style (if they ever truly were). Today’s author must disguise the backstory within other techniques. Dialogue, for instance. Having characters discuss important events of the past is an effective way to get the information to the reader. Another technique is marbling, where the information is tucked into the story in small chucks to spread it out.
But it all comes down to the original question: how much backstory is enough? I’m more of a minimalist. I aim to give readers just enough information to keep the story moving. I believe that while backstory can add depth to a character, such as providing motivation, the most important part of a story is what is happening now. But obviously that’s not the only way to skin the proverbial cat. You should do what feels right to you, and rely on your first readers for feedback about whether you’ve gone too far.
Backstory is a valuable tool to add depth and verisimilitude to your story, but you should be mindful not to bog down your narrative with the past. Like pepper, a little bit can spice up a story, but too much will make it unpalatable.