Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Backstory is an area in which writers often get tripped up, especially when first starting out. "I have to tell you about where he came from and what matters to him and why he's traumatized by the sound of bells and why there's bad blood between him and his archnemesis!" the writer says. "Otherwise, how will you understand what's going on, and why will you care?"

This can lead to gobs of exposition in the first chapter: a bunch of throat-clearing before the real action starts. But I generally say, in answer to the question of how much backstory we need: As little as possible. And sprinkled throughout the book, instead of front-loaded.

Think about how we get to know people and the world. Upon meeting a new person, we don't immediately exchange autobiographies. We get to know people over time, slowly. They might reveal one detail of their past one day, another detail later on. In the meantime, we're engaging with our new acquaintance in the present, and we're learning a lot from how he speaks to us and others, how he behaves, what he does.

We observe whether someone's actions are gentle or rough, thoughtful or careless, generous or selfish. We can tell, within a short time, whether the people around us are impetuous. Funny. Forgetful. Wise. Brusque. Gossipy. Shy.

We also learn, fairly quickly, what they care about--do they talk about their kids? Bring in new baked goods from the recipes they're always trying? Put up photos of their latest ski trip? Ask you to join in on a fundraiser for a charity? Leave books lying around? Invite you to the latest foreign film?

By showing what our characters are doing now, we can reveal a lot. And when the villain first shows up, it can raise tension if we just hint at bitterness between protagonist and antagonist, rather than rushing to supply a page's worth of explanation on why the two can't stand each other. We can dole out the clues as needed--only what's needed to understand the scene in front of us.


  1. Argh. I posted a comment here earlier this week & I THOUGHT it didn't go through. Trying again.! For me, when a story starts with too much backstory, it sends me into a bit of suspicious mode. Not really suspicion that I've got an unreliable narrator, but more that the author hasn't quite made the leap to letting his/her characters show me their own story and letting them evolve into what he/she may already know they are. If that makes sense.

    1. Yes, it does. I think we can get a sense of an author's skill level pretty quickly, as well as the degree of trust the author places in the reader.