Monday, 16 May 2011


Even if your book starts at the beginning of the story, at some point you will have to fill in some details which give background or explain the events. You may, for example, need to tell us something about Alex’s past or relate what led up to your dramatic opening. A character trait may need a reference to a childhood event, for example. All this is called back-story. A beginner often gives too much back story too soon, or in over-large chunks.

This is because the beginner writer doesn't trust the reader enough, assuming he won't understand without all the back-story as soon as possible; and at the same the beginner writer trusts the reader too much - trusts that he will hang around while all the tedious back-story is thrown at him.

Back-story is essential, but so, in my life, is coffee. This does not mean I should drink my daily three five cups all before 10am. No, I should spread them out. Interestingly – stay with me – I tend to have nearly all my coffee before 2pm and drink other beverages from then on. This is only interesting because it is handy for my analogy: yes, your back-story should be spread out but it is also likely to be needed during the first half of your book more than the second.

Perhaps the most common way to overdose on back-story, and therefore the one to beware of most, is this: Chapter One, full of excitement and the clever trailing of intriguing hooks, with the introduction of a character we really, really care about and are desperate to follow; Chapter Two, a history lesson in which our main character’s life story is laid out in meticulous detail. Result: either the reader skips it, or she becomes so disengaged that she couldn’t give a damn about Chapter Three.

I have noticed something in my own writing process, and other writers say they do this too. I tend to fill the first 5,000 words with lots of explanatory detail, because I am trying to get the situations and motivations clear in my own head. Then, on revising, I cut a huge amount of it out, because I realise that as long as it all hangs together and makes sense, the reader does not need nearly as much explanation as I’d thought. In effect, the explanation was for me, not the reader.

So, back-story needs to be drip-fed, gently, so that the reader never skips over it and hardly notices that it’s happening. I have come to realise that we need far less back-story than we often think. But we need enough. Enough for the reader, not for the writer.

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I'm away today and not back till Wednesday evening - I'll be able to read your comments but probably not join in. Please comment, though.

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Rebecca Bradley said...

How does this work with a series? For instance, I am drip feeding a backstory through the first book, but don't really plan on elaborating too much on it until another book further in the series. It's not pertinent to the current story but will serve to give some reasons behind what makes the protagonist who she is. I doubt readers would even notice they are being drip fed something important that will be relevant later. Is this acceptable?

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite (and rare) things is to read a post about how to write and think 'ooh, I'm doing that already!' Makes me smile all day :D

Rebecca Brown said...

My personal bugbear is someone thinking "I need to get across all of this backstory. I know, I'll have some dialogue between the main character and their mum all about how Jenny grew up and what happened last week that led to the events we're about to witness".

Gah. I love how you do Jack's backstory in Wasted - the important stuff is there but not overload. Great example.

Nicola Morgan said...

Rebecca (Bradley) - I think you just answered your own question with the perfect answer!

Clare - hooray ;)

Rebecca(Brown) - thank you ;)

Dan Holloway said...

Very good question 1st Rebecca, and thank you Nicola for the answer. i'v noticed in the best TV series there's very rarely much backstory in episode one - it charges stratight in there. The back story comes later, but somehow the characters have been set up in episode one so that you're intrigued. Often you find with TV, and I've noticed it with books as well - Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs did it rather well - that subsequent books in the series will raise issues/involve situations that are pertinent to one character more than others, which makes it easier to stay in control.

The formulaic way of handling backstory these days (any thoughts on its legitimacy as it's so popular?) is another one I first remember seeing in film (Terminator) but seems to be used in pretty much every thriller - the 2/3 breather. We've had our hook, we've had our chases and our first big fight, we know what's coming - if this is a war story, it's "the night before"; if this is a "band of heroes" story, it's "just outside the enemy gates"; if it's a "lone everyman on the run" it's when he's holed-up in a warehouse with his love interest. It's invariably the time bad books and films insert a totally unnecessary sex scene. In a war film, this is the moment when one of the almost principal characters waxes about dear Judy wauiting for him in her picket-fenced house back home (remember that brilliant Mary Whitehouse Experience skit "spot the stiff"? Well, this is the stiff-spotting scene - we just know he'll never see Judy again - so that close up on the letter he tucks back into his pocket is all the more poignant) It's absolutely essential to avoid the double climax and re-rathchet the tension. But it often seems to me that authors think "what do I do with this space? I know, I'll add backstory" and that strikes me as rather lazy.

Stroppy Author said...

Like Rebecca, I'm trying to eke out backstory over a series. One device I've hit on is to have a big secret in the past - we know there is a secret, but not what it is. So as backstory emerges, it's exciting (I hope).

HelenO said...

Another fab post. I was once told there should be 'no backstory in the first three chapters' - so I sat down and looked closely at the first draft of my then WIP, and realised I kept stopping the action to explain stuff.
I still broke that particular rule, because there was one piece of explanation that HAD to go into Ch 3, but it did make me think hard about what readers definitely needed at that point, and what they could live without.

Rin said...

A great post (as usual). It's something I think I am guilty of, shoving too much back story in too early on. I'm just in the process of editing the first half of my book and suspect there is going to be lots of red pen in the first couple of chapters!

Anonymous said...

Uncannily enough (or stupidly enough), I've just written a 5,000-word chapter of back story and this has made me see where I've gone wrong.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Thanks.

I've got three or four paragraphs of back story in my first chapter. It was seven or eight so I'm getting there.

Only thing is I do feel what is left is important, or relevant to the plot and theme and also shows character.

My question is how are we defining back story?


Ebony McKenna. said...

Yes, yes, and absolutely yes.

Backstory does not belong at the front of the book.

I've also ranted about it here
because (at the time) I was judging a competition and saw heaps of backstory clotting the pages.