Oct 21 2011 4:00pm

Backstory: How Much Is Enough?

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.

Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow’s Son and Shadow’s Lure (Pyr Books). He lives in central Pennsylvania where is he currently sweating over the manuscript for his third book.

Aspiring Writer
1. Aspiring Writer
I love this post. I think it's important for writers to understand that backstory, while important, is not the story we're telling. I also think the 'infodump' is a crucial pitfall for writers. They get to that spot in a book that they have a big scene, but they remember that they wanted to tie it back to another point in the character's life so they throw a paragraph or two in there hitting readers over the head. I liken it to the opening chapter of N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance opening. Narrated backstory upfront to set us up in her world. Subtlity is a writer's friend, I think it's what needs to be perfected in the revision phases. Infodump while you draft your story to get it out, but fine tune it after.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Jon. I can attest Shadow's Son does follow your philosophy. Just enough to keep us going forward.

I do understand Shadow's Lure opens up more of Caim's origins and the story behind that. But I won't expect infodumps.
Aspiring Writer
3. Herb2
Fantasy more than other genres tends to tell stories that have everything to do with the past. This is a good thing; when well done, it is really something special. Think Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire. The past affects the story in thousands of ways. When done right, it's like two stories told simultaneously. One proceeds in normal chronological order, the other jumping back and forth, but generally moving backwards. Little wonder the second is the harder to pull off.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
4. tnh
The best rule of thumb I know is to never tell the readers something before they want to know it. If they enjoy the story enough, they may go on to take an interest in the backstory; but that comes afterward.
Aspiring Writer
5. AlBrown
Sometimes, giving us chunks of backstory alternating with the current narrative can be a great technique, as both converge toward a common goal. Other times, writers give us a big dramatic start (alarums and excursions!), but then chapter two is like a history lesson. Too much backstory can definitely clog things up.
I think it is harder to give backstory in movies, because they are so compact. One movie I can think of where the backstory was right up front, but beautifully handled, was the Pixar movie Up. It made so much of a difference in how we reacted to Carl, and realized that his crusty exterior covered a heart of gold.
But in many cases, too much backstory can ruin things. And especially when you go back and turn your backstory into 'prequels.' Like the newest Star Wars movies. Ugh...
Aspiring Writer
6. looloolooweez
Really well-done books & series generally seem to follow tnh's rule of thumb. But... I guess I'm a little odd in that I actually like lots of exposition/infodumps. This might be a side-effect of my love for historical & science NF. Maybe when one is used to NF patterns in reading, one expects to see that same kind of pattern (background info galore!) in F, at least to some extent? But the best SF writers know how to mete out that background info at just the right places and in just the right amounts so that it moves the story forward rather than jarring the reader out of his/her normal reading trance.
Michael Burke
7. Ludon
I believe an example of making the backstory an important part of the story would be Louis Sachar's Holes. But if you think about that story - think about moving things around - you could see how easily it could have not worked.
Aspiring Writer
8. Queen MyrdemInggala
One of the better examples of back-story handled well, is the way Brian Aldiss lets us in on the secret behind the Kaidaw - slowly opening it out in Helliconia Spring, then the very next thing, we're meeting one of the characters right up front - Billish Owpin in person. To explain his backstory, we get taken through the history of the Kaidaw, which then leads us onto the origins of the Helliconia system, and the astrophysical reasons why there are several sophonts on the planet Helliconia, and why two of them can't seem to get along ...

Ursula Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness is another writer who handles backstory extraordinarily well, with the little snippets of tales from Gethen's past, and stories from the religions ... little stories that also illustrate her central thesis in the main novel beautifully.

Doris Lesisng in Shikasta also handles the backstory well, with flashbacks, asides, and characters making the next best thing to excuses - it's endemic, even the Sirian bureaucrats in The Sirian Experiments make endless excuses - and provide us with endless ( and painless ) backstory.

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