Basics of writingNovel writingStory Details

Dealing with backstory

From Rick:

One problem writers often have is how much backstory to use and when they should use (or not use) it in their stories. One writer at Silver Pen recently was dealing with this issue, so I thought this would be a perfect topic here.

When to include backstory is a bit easier to answer than how much to include. The reason the latter question is more difficult to answer is because it depends, in part, on the length of the piece. Clearly, the shorter the story, the less room there is for backstory.

One concern this writer had was how to ensure that the backstory didn’t become the story. To answer this concern, the writer has to determine the importance of the backstory with regard to the main story. Paradoxically, there are times when the backstory may actually be or be a good part of the character’s story. In issue #3 of Fabula Argentea, we published a story by Branden Johnson in which the backstory/flashbacks effectively shared nearly equal space with the present-day story.


Admittedly, this is somewhat an exception as stories go, but one principle should guide you in determining when and how much backstory to include: You always want to be sure the reader stays with you and that you keep him interested. Too much backstory or misplaced backstory may bore or confuse the reader, just as the absence of sufficient backstory can confuse a reader by leaving out details.

One strong suggestion is that you–in general–should NOT open with backstory (whether it’s labeled a prologue or not). You should begin with the story. And if that backstory is so important that you feel the need to begin with it, then it may not be backstory, and that’s where your story should start. Be sure to search out the blog posts here on “To prolog or not prolog.” (11/29/2011 & 12/5/2011)

Maybe we should define backstory here. “Backstory” really means “background story” or the events that precede and lead up to the story. It also consists of the backgrounds of the characters.

Because these pieces of information are not always as interesting as the main story line is precisely the reason they should not come first. As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, a story should begin at or as close to a moment of change for the main character as possible. Harry Potter begins with the brief background of his living situation and quickly moves to the point at which his life changes. We’ve also pointed out how Rowling almost lost out by not opening with Harry himself. Fortunately, her first chapter was short.

Two factors govern how much backstory is needed. The first is the length of the story. Short stories have little room for backstory. At the same time, you must be sure that you give the reader enough information to understand what’s going on. Backstory can consist of a line or two to a paragraph or two. I recently read a Fabula Argentea submission (which we just accepted) wherein the story really is the backstory. The author handled the backstory in the character’s thoughts and gives not only the background, but also brings the reader up to the present, not unlike Branden Johnson’s piece did. However, these pieces of backstory are partially memory flashbacks because the character is recalling past events and describing them to the reader, but the character is not taking the reader there. In other words, they’re not full scenes, just snippets. Be sure you distinguish between backstory and memory flashbacks.

The caution for writers is that backstory must be handled carefully and judiciously. Use it to explain and fill in gaps, but don’t get caught up in lengthy backstory.

Right here we should explain the difference between backstory and flashbacks. A flashback is an actual scene with one or more events that happened in the past. The reader is taken there. Flashbacks may contain backstory (and often do).

Pure backstory is little more than exposition where the writer stops the action to explain something that happened in the past or to fill the reader in about a character’s past. Backstory is meant to be informative telling instead of showing. And this is why it should be kept to a minimum–it’s TELLING.

This isn’t to say that backstory can’t be interesting or even compelling. One example is my own published short story “Jack,” where the secondary character’s backstory IS the story. (You can find “Jack” in the first issue of Fabula Argentea where we reprinted it more as a test of the site and decided to leave it there.)

In that same issue of the magazine is a story titled “Lost Signal” in which the author, Samuel Barnhart, sprinkles in just enough of the character’s backstory to enhance the piece and fill in the gaps. Notice that he does it at the right times, thereby showing WHEN to insert backstory.

You, as a writer, must always be careful not to let backstory take over the story unless it really is the story. In that case, you’d better be using flashback scenes. Otherwise, you want to slip in bits of necessary backstory to answer questions the reader may have, but not so much that is stops the story’s forward momentum. Good backstory answers questions (or asks questions) at the right moment to keep the story moving and the reader interested.

Therein lies your guideline for how much backstory is needed: If the backstory stops the story, it’s too much or improperly placed. The best advice I can offer is to observe how other authors do it. Note those who deftly insert bits of backstory and those who drag out the backstory so that it slows or stops the story. One clue to bad backstory is when an author starts a section with a line like “she remembered…” and proceeds to take the reader into a longwinded memory of the character’s past. Notice how long that passage goes on. If it’s short, good. When it’s long or an author does it (or a flashback) within the first couple of pages of the novel, it’s probably not a good thing.

Therefore, be careful when following the example of other authors, and don’t rely on an author’s reputation. Not every bestselling author writes everything well. Learn to recognize good and bad writing independent of an author’s reputation. And learn to follow the good examples.


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