What’s the Story on Backstory?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

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.

rear view mirrorTimes Have Changed

A hundred years ago, or even 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.

Introduce backstory slowly.

You want to give 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, 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.

Be stingy with it.

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. Keep the forward momentum of the story going.

Backstory can backfire on you.

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’s wasted. Don’t try to include a ton of backstory in the beginning of your novel.

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 isn’t a writing “rule.”

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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30 Responses

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  1. Great post,Rachelle! Backstory is one of the real bugbears of writing, and can be so very distracting, if not discouraging.
    * I try to handle it in context, and the best way I can describe this is with a personal example from life:
    1) I could describe to you why I have combat-trauma-induced PTSD, and if you’re still awake after the dates and the place-names (some of which have no direct English translation) you will simply think, “This dude has fought overseas.”
    2) Or, you could tap me on the shoulder as we’re leaving, say, a church service (this is based on a real incident). AFTER a group of bystanders has prevented me from altering your appearance, you will be left with the distinct impression that the dude has some serious boundary and hypervigilance issues, and that he is well-trained in some violent people-skills.
    * In most cases, I think that Option (2) is better, as it’s (A) more readable, and (B) easier and perhaps more fun to work into a storyline.

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    Since historical and science fiction require more narrative description to set the scenes than contemporary fiction, are the requirements for minimizing backstory also less restrictive?

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Nope. You still must release the backstory a little at a time, like dropping breadcrumbs to lead the reader to an understanding of your character. Also, take note – much of the backstory the writer is so convinced the reader “needs” is actually only needed by the WRITER. 🙂

  3. Another great article with helpful information. Thank you so much!

  4. Lara Hosselton says:

    Great tips on how to effectively use or avoid backstory. I especially liked your observation that writers feel backstory is necessary information the reader will need later on.
    *I’ll recheck my first chapter to make sure I have no more than a couple well placed lines and the action isn’t slowed. I’ve tried to make a point never to use backstory unless is vital to that moment in time.

  5. Thanks, Rachelle!

    I definitely struggle with backstory in my current WIP becuase an event in the main character’s mother’s life-about which the MC is totally unaware-is the cause for many of the difficulties the MC encounters. However, I’m trying to reveal those tidbits at the right times, and through the actions/dialogue of people who were there and slowly reveal things to our heroine.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Sounds great, Jennifer. And the reading experience is so much more fun when we are wondering about a character, and we get to discover things a little at a time.

  6. Argh! I have the opposite problem. I tend to be so tricky and vague that readers are confused. One of the very first writing books I ever read, actually, I think it was the first writing book I ever read, was “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Brown and King. A great book, one that incidentally I got the name of off Janet Grant’s list on her old website back when it was just her. She was one of the only agents with a website and lists of books back in 2001, 2002… But I realized later that this book was meant to be read after one finished the wild creative rush of a first draft. I read it before. Then I wrote my first draft with all of those helpful hints about being mysterious and trusting the reader in my head and I was mysterious indeed. So mysterious that I had to go back and add things just to make everything make sense. I still struggle with this, in fact, right now I’m going back and forth with my critique partner on a passage and the question I’m needing to know is “Do you understand most of what is happening?” I do want some mystery. But the reader needs to follow the story, too. Here is to balance! May my story find it soon.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Kristen, I think that’s a much better problem for a writer to have. You are starting from the place of trusting your reader to “get it,” which is a healthy basis for an author-reader relationship!

  7. Great post, Rachelle. Years ago, I heard the word picture to only add backstory breadcrumbs. Sprinkle a little here or there rather than dumping it all in at one point in the story. Dropping breadcrumbs through internal thought or dialogue is what I’ve heard is helpful.
    *I’m discovering that it’s really good to know my characters’ backstory, but I’m not actually going to share much of it in the actual story. My knowing my characters well will help me write them in a realistic, hopefully, more deep way . . . whether or not readers read their entire backstory.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Exactly. As I commented above, often the backstory is necessary for the writer to know, but not for the reader.

  8. I’ve heard people say that without backstory they can’t sympathize with the main character. So there has to be a way to balance love and understanding of character and patience for backstory … A way to keep the reader hanging in there and wanting to hang in there till the backstory starts filtering in. I suppose that’s just good writing … 🙂

  9. Katie Powner says:

    This requires such a tricky balance. I’ve often had betas ask, “Why did he do that?” or “Why did this happen?” They want to know why, and sometimes the only way to explain why is through backstory. But do they really need to know why RIGHT NOW? Does every question need to be answered? Can the reader be left to decide for themselves why someone did something?

    I really need to work on this!

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Beta readers can sometimes be impatient. They don’t want to worry and wonder about the character, they want all the answers NOW. But the best books don’t work that way.

  10. Yes, I struggle with how and when to reveal backstory. When I catch myself chunking it instead of sprinkling, I know I’m getting lazy. Kind of like when I prefer to cook a frozen pizza instead of following a recipe with more than three ingredients.

  11. A while ago I tried to write a book for kids that involved time travel to the past with an influence on the present. It needed to start with the main character arriving in the past, but backstory about what led up that was essential for the ending. I couldn’t figure out how to get that in, so I eventually gave up on writing the book. I still wish I could figure out how to write it.

  12. David Todd says:

    It’s hard to write a novel without backstory for a couple of reasons. One, we know our characters well, and we want the reader to know them. Their motivations often involve backstory. So how can the reader understand the characters unless they know the backstory? For me, another reason is I like to write what I like to read, and I like books with as much backstory up front as is possible. Think the James Michener and Herman Wouk sagas. I tend to think the world is full of readers like me, but I guess not. David Morrell (Rocky; many other novels) is a master at working in backstory.
    .
    That said, in my novel based in China, I had four POV characters, each of whom has a character arc, with the backstory important to their arcs. I found some slow places to work it in, well into the book. It seemed to work well that way.

    • Loyd Uglow says:

      Like you, David, I enjoy backstory. But I’ve been making a point of working it into the narrative more and more through dialog or through association in the POV character’s mind with things happening in the immediate present. It takes me a lot of revising to get it smooth and seamless.

  13. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Thanks, Rachelle. Very helpful. I love your hint to consider myself the guardian of the backstory and be stingy with it. Also hearing it’s a tool, not a rule; and the historical difference is illuminating and helps reduce confusion.
    “Yea!” to reducing confusion.

    I’m getting better with seeing when I slip into backstory. Sometimes I think the impetus to include it is because we care about our characters and don’t want readers to think they’re clueless, responding without good reason. I appreciate the emphasis on trusting the reader. Evaluating from that point of view makes it easier to cut the “Duh. I knew that” clutter.

  14. Iola says:

    It bother me how many books I read from well-known authors who don’t seem to understand this. I recently read one where most of the first quarter was backstory, which made it a real struggle to get into for all the reasons you’ve covered.

    Sure, the second half was excellent but I wouldn’t have got to the second half if it wasn’t for the fact it was a review copy so I felt obliged to read it all before writing my review (and it was an author I usually love, so I was prepared to give her some leeway).

    But If I’d been browsing in the bookstore and had never read anything by that author before, I would have browsed the first few pages and put it back on the shelf.

  15. I’m with Todd…I like backstory! I get it it, we need to keep the reader forward. But, like all fads, I think this concept of backstory is a fad and soon the tide will change once again. Personally, as a reader, “modern” books bore me. I don’t find them deep enough because of the lack of “more” and this notion of “go, go, go,” in writing. I love literature of the past! Rich, layered stories that make me take my time to indulge in the story. Now, we seem to get TV sitcom version in writing. I know, there is a balance, and as a writer I need to find that. But the pendulum seems to have swung a wee to one side. And I, as a reader and writer, miss the backstory. I understand. It is what the publishing word wants and is buying. We need to conform. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

  16. Emily L Cotton says:

    I have developed my own method of dealing with backstory: the unconscious life of the brain. Most people ignore the fact that 25% of our thought life happens in dreams. My characters dream, and what they dream provides backstory–also, how they process what they remember on waking. Dreams are also wonderful action-pieces, totally unrestricted as to time and place; they follow no reasonable rules of sequence or physical possibility.