Tuesday, August 18, 2009


If I was really efficient, I'd have a bunch of blogs to link to regarding this topic. Since I'm not that efficient . . . well, you'll just have to take what you get this morning.

There appears to be a great debate in the literary world regarding backstory, that can be summed up with one simple question: How much backstory is too much backstory?

Now, the inspiration for this post came Rachelle Gardner's post about tightening up your manuscript as well as a few other blogs that I've read recently. One of the items on Rachelle's list was unnecessary backstory. I mean, we've probably all done it at one time - throw in a ton of backstory because we think, no, because we BELIEVE it is necessary. We BELIEVE the reader needs to know every endless detail about our characters life . . . before they get into the meat of our brilliant stories!

Yes, I've been guilty of the too much backstory thingy. In fact, I could create a great prequel to a book or two based on the huge amounts of backstory I have created . . . at times.

Backstory is great . . . in small doses. I guess what I'm trying to say is . . . don't overwhelm your reader with a ton of backstory.

I normally intersperse backstory into the first few chapters. You see, when I meet someone for the first time, I don't know everything about him/her. I learn that information over time. I think, at least for me, backstory should be learned over time as well. Give your readers enough info to get a general idea of your character, and let them learn the rest as the story progresses.

Now, some out there in the blogsphere are going to disagree with me. More power to them. Writing is a process and we all do it in our own unique way. The blogsphere is a teaching tool for aspiring writers. We all talk about how we write. And, hopefully, we all learn a bit from following the gazillion blogs we follow, whether here on Blogger, on Networked Blogs, or wherever. I firmly believe that we should never stop learning. We might not all write in the same way, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from how others write as well. Trust me, I've learned a ton by following the blogs I follow.

So, I leave you with these questions . . .

How much backstory is too much backstory?

Do you overwhelm your readers with backstory or slip in a bit here, there, and everywhere?

If you overwhelm? Why?

If you intersperse? Why?


Marybeth Poppins said...

I'm trying to figure out if starting from the beginning is the back story.

This really is a complicated issue!

T. Anne said...

I agree, it's great in small doses.

Davin Malasarn said...

My problem is that I often don't have enough backstory. In fact, with my most recent novel, I ended up doubling the size of my book because my reviewer friends kept saying that they needed to know more. I ended up creating a second story line that started out as backstory. It's interspersed throughout the book, and hopefully it has taken on enough literary goodness to deserve the space that I've given it. Backstory seems to be most important when it serves to clarify, and for my book, that's what I ended up having to do a lot of.

Alex Moore said...

I'm with you: enough backstory but not too much :P

that being said, i've picked up a couple of books recently that had, oh, ZERO backstory, letting the reader "discover" basically everything in the journey of reading.

did i mention that i didn't finish the books? Engaging the reader is all well & good, but creating a dang mystery (genre: fantasy) is, IMHO, a waste of precious time.

i don't like wandering lost :)

Scott said...

Marybeth - my whole philosophy is not to overwhelm your readers in the very beginning. Give them some action/drama and add in a little backstory. Then again, that's just me. : )

T. Anne - ditto.

Davin - a think there's definitely a fine balance with how much backstory to include. As I mentioned, I had enough backstory in one project to write a pretty good prequel. That's not necessarily a good thing, btw. I have seen books where the chapters alternate between past/present with the backstory slowly unfolding throughout the entire book.

Alex - I truly think there has to be some backstory unless you're starting at the actual birth of the character. Otherwise, there's backstory involved somehow. Harry Potter's backstory - dropped off at Aunt & Uncle's house after his parents tragic death. The reader knew enough, and slowly the rest of the details were revealed. So, give me some backstory, just don't hit me over the head with it. ; )


Kathryn Magendie said...

I like the reader to get to know my character(s) as they read along... I'm finding this with the second book - since it is a continuation of the first, how much do I want the reader to know...but, I don't want to clutter it up with all kinds of backstory, so I give some hints, just a little, enough to get the point across and move on...

(visiting from Gumbo Writer's place!)

Heather Zundel said...

Great topic, and one I'm sure could be discussed to no end. But you seem to have a good handle on what's right so that is very cool. Thank you so much for following.