What’s the Story on Backstory?
One of the biggest challenges for novelists—new and seasoned alike—is avoiding too much backstory in the opening of the book. A lot of people ask me questions about backstory, and often argue with me about it. So I wanted to give you some tips here.
Backstory usually refers to narrative that tells something about a character’s past. It’s given in an informational style without real-time action or dialogue. Backstory doesn’t show, it tells, thereby risking losing the reader’s interest.
Here’s an example:
Stacy Clarke rounded the end of the canned food aisle and brought her cart to a halt, barely avoiding slamming into the six-foot hottie organizing the Cheez-Its display. He glanced at her and smiled, shaking his longish bangs away from his eyes. She lowered her eyes and mumbled as she maneuvered around him. Ugh. Another opportunity blown. Why was she always such a dork?
Stacy had worked at this supermarket for two years before she’d quit to take her current job as a receptionist. She’d always been shy, and the guys had stopped trying to get her attention once they realized she wasn’t responding. It had been five long years since she’d had a boyfriend, and she was tired of being lonely.
Obviously I made this up, but it’s a close approximation of something I see all the time. Look at the second paragraph. It took us totally away from the current place and time. It took us away from the action – in fact, it stopped the action in its tracks. It’s backstory.
Usually when backstory isn’t working, it’s because it isn’t artfully done, and there’s too much of it in one place. When there’s a whole paragraph, or a page or more of backstory, we call this an info-dump.
A hundred years ago, or even fifty or thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for authors to spend pages on backstory. Books (like life) moved at a slower pace. Characters could be introduced slowly and the story could take several chapters to get started. But that was then, and this is now. Today we have little tolerance for anything that slows down the forward momentum of the story. This is one of the biggest reasons that too much backstory is perceived as a negative in novels of today.
When you’re bringing your reader into the world of your novel, you’re trying to engage their senses and their emotions right away to get them involved in the story. You need to make an emotional connection with the reader as quickly as possible. The way to do that is in the here and now, the action and dialogue taking place in the present time. It’s highly unlikely you’ll make an emotional connection through backstory.
If you look at the bad-writing example above, it becomes clear that all the information in that second paragraph could easily be integrated into the story in a way that shows us Stacy’s background. As written, we learn information but we don’t engage with her. If we were at all interested in her after the first paragraph, it’s likely our interest has faded by the end of the second.
There are ways to bring the backstory into the book, and the key is to do it slowly. Think about giving just enough information to illuminate one tiny aspect of your character at a time. Place your characters in situations, let them react, and let your reader wonder how they got there and why they reacted that way. You want to be strategic, almost cunning, in the way that you let little bits of information from the past appear on the page. Use those pieces of backstory to slowly and carefully flesh out that character, never giving away too much, always leaving the reader guessing a little.
That’s one of the things that keeps readers going—when they’re asking themselves questions about your character. They want to know more and so they become engaged in the story. If you try to feed them all the information they could possibly need right up front, readers aren’t experiencing that desire for more. You could lose them.
Think of backstory as a precious commodity of which you are the guardian. You will release it on a need-to-know basis. Only give the reader what they need for that moment of the story, just little bits here and there. Be stingy with it. Keep the forward momentum of the story going.
Writers often want to put backstory in because they’re convinced the reader will need to know this information “later.” Ironically, information conveyed in a narrative format that doesn’t engage the reader’s emotions has a good chance of not being remembered later when the information is important. So it backfires on you. Don’t try to include a ton of backstory in the beginning of your novel.
I know some people are still unclear on exactly what we mean by backstory. If you write a scene (with action, dialogue and location) that takes place in the past, then it’s not backstory, it’s a flashback. There’s another whole set of guidelines and tips and conventions for flashbacks; but for now, just realize that when we say backstory, we’re not talking about flashbacks.
Literary agent and writing teacher Donald Maass challenges writers to avoid backstory in the first fifty pages of a novel. I don’t advocate a complete zero-tolerance policy; when handled well, small amounts of backstory can add depth and interest to a story. But I think it’s a good goal. It’s great practice to work on writing your story in the present. Work on showing the reader what you need them to know about your characters through their present day action rather than telling them about the past.
This whole discussion about backstory is not about “rules.” It’s not arbitrary, and it’s not about trying to get writers to conform or jump through hoops. It’s simply to give you one more tool for figuring out how to make your story the best it can be. Vibrant, engaging writing is usually immediate. Backstory is not. So use this knowledge where it fits, throw it out where it doesn’t. And keep writing the best story you can.
Where are you with backstory? Do you struggle with it? Why do you think it’s hard to write a novel without so much backstory?
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© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent