Do You Have Too Much Backstory or Not Enough?

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Back when I regularly bought hardcopy books, whether from a big-box store, my local bookstore, or even during my local library’s annual used-books sale, I had a specific process. First, the cover had to catch my eye. (We all judge books by their covers, shut up.) It had to be sharp and clear enough that I got an immediate impression of the general genre and what that particular story’s content might be about. I then read the back cover (these days, the inside jacket) for the book synopsis.

Appropriately intrigued, I spent a few minutes reading the first chapter. I needed to verify the premise was what the synopsis claimed, if the character was solid enough for me to want to follow, and what kind of cliffhanger the prologue or first chapter ended on. Driven enough, I’d even read the second chapter. At this point, if I’ve moved on to the third chapter, I’m also already heading to the checkout area and retrieving my wallet.

I don’t think I’m the only reader who goes through this kind of process, whether with a hardcopy or e-book. An action-packed or tension-filled first twenty to thirty pages almost guarantees readers will keep turning those pages. On the other hand, there are authors who believe their target reader needs to know a character’s entire history upfront to understand why the story kicks off at that moment in said character’s life.

Backstory—literally everything that happens prior to current story time—has its place. I’m going to discuss two instances where it fits perfectly and one where it’s best to avoid it.

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Middle of the Road

Let readers get to know your characters as they are now. Depending on the length of your story, you have somewhere between 200 and 300 pages to get a reader from Point A to Point B. The route, of course, is never that simple. However, deviating from the GPS directions without just cause makes for an unpredictable ride. Backstory is perfect for deepening an existing problem by adding more complications, answering a question or two posed earlier in the plot, and especially for illuminating a special aspect of your character that couldn’t otherwise be shown.

Literary agent, writing coach, and author Donald Maass recommends cutting every instance of backstory in your manuscript’s first fifty pages. Put them somewhere between the fifty- to seventy-percent mark. That information likely won’t fit there in the end, of course. However, the start of your manuscript will be much clearer. You may even figure out some places to better weave the backstory in bit by bit.

The Lowest Low

It’s when things are at their worst for a character that I want to know the most about them. What truly led them to this moment, internally and externally? Why did they ignore these past events for so long? How on Athena’s green earth are they going to overcome those past traumas to triumph now?

This period is otherwise known as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” It’s that moment of the tale where all seems truly lost, and the character is closer than ever to quitting.

Provide readers that last juicy bit of backstory to offer them insight on your protagonist’s true internal weakness. That’s what they’ve been fighting against for 200 to 300 pages, and it’s their final internal obstacle to overcome. Not only does this character burst out of their self-imposed chrysalis, readers experience firsthand their life-altering rebirth.

Chapter One, Page One (or Worse, the Prologue)

Janice Hardy, published fiction and nonfiction author and writing coach, makes it clearer than I ever could.

Bad setup [. . .] stops the story because there’s no other goal or reason for it to be there aside from dumping information. Good setup refers to the elements that flesh out the story and lay the groundwork for the plot [. . .] in a way that establishes a character, world, or situation all while moving the plot and story forward.

Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft

Last week, I covered some tips on how to show your character in their “ordinary world” before thrusting them into the inciting incident. While backstory and flashbacks have their place, the first chapter—let alone that first page—is not where it belongs. Not if you want readers to keep reading.

Dialogue, action, and internal monologue are all tools of the fiction writer’s trade. Wield them in turn so that any essential backstory becomes a seamless and underlying part of a particular scene. Avoid interrupting the scene’s flow and pulling readers out of your story completely.

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I have what’s considered a horrible habit to non-neurospicy folx: I have a gold medal in Oversharing™. I don’t know if it’s the autism, the ADHD, or the hypomanic side of my bipolar 2. In the end, it doesn’t matter. If I’m telling a story, you’ll feel like you need a Doctor of Philosophy degree to follow along. Even worse, you’ll need a Doctor of Psychology degree to pull me back on course. That’s the kind of orator I’ve always been. My writing can be much the same way, except I’m the one reeling me in.

Fiction readers pick up novels to escape. They can’t escape if they instead have to decode pages of character history that have little to no relevance to the story’s current events. They may be relevant down the line, as your character moves through more impactful scenes where readers need that deep understanding of the protagonist’s mindset or actions. Trust your readers to infer along the way. They’ll gladly reflect on your story one word at a time.

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