Kill Your Backstory… At Least Delay It

Hi again, friends! It’s been far too long, that’s for sure.

I really miss chatting with you all more frequently, but not having internet at the place I’m currently staying is detrimental to communicating via WP on a daily basis. Although, it is wonderful for my creative outlet-ing.

Have you ever read the first line or paragraph or page of a book and rolled your eyes so many times you felt like they’d get stuck like that?

No?

You’re lying.

We’ve all encountered books like that. I’m not going to name any specific book, but the one that bothered me the most, and most recently, was one a patient recommended I read. Thank God I didn’t buy it. She loaned it to me.

I’m always leery of people bringing me books. We all have such different tastes I rarely enjoy what’s recommended. Unless that person knows me very well.

On one of my lunch breaks last week, I had to drain and clean the water heater in the clinic. It takes 15 minutes just to drain it before I clean it. So I grabbed the book while I waited.

I cracked open the cover…

Held my breath as I read the first sentence…

And promptly rolled my eyes in disbelief.

Seriously? First of all, the opening line was a cheese factory and I could barely get past it. Then, the first paragraph called for at least half a dozen eye rolls.

And I didn’t even count how many times I muttered, “oh brother,” during the first page. I didn’t finish the book. I didn’t even turn the first page to read on.

Want to know why?

TOO. MUCH. BACKSTORY.

I barely met the main character when I was thrust into this backstory about these two people he met who changed his life forever and how that happened. All within the first page.

First of all, in order to understand why characters matter to each other and the circumstances surrounding the history of their relationships, it takes much more than one page – or a few paragraphs – to dig into the depth of that background. Why authors try to jam it all into the first few pages is beyond me.

I’m not saying I haven’t broken the Thou Shalt Not Include Backstory commandment. I have. As everyone has sometime in their writing life.

I get how crucial backstory is to writers, but the problem is, its far more important to us than our readers.

In the case of said book, I didn’t even know or care about the main character yet, and then I’m forced to encounter this random backstory that probably wasn’t important that early on in the story.

The way to include backstory is gradually. Pile it on during some lengthy dialogue, or in little bits and pieces throughout the whole book while the character is introspective.

Backstory is a delicate beast to manage. Too little and the readers give up on the character’s motivation for what they do. But too much and it grows into an untamable, wild-growing hedge of mythic proportions. As in… we can’t see above it, below it, around it, or through it. All we can focus on is the backstory, when the REAL story is getting buried under the clippings of the hedge.

Is backstory crucial to the success and enigmatic pull of our books? Absolutely. But for pity’s sake… take a whip to that beast and keep it in its place!

Happy writing!

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”
― Henry Green

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
― Lewis CarrollAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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9 thoughts on “Kill Your Backstory… At Least Delay It

  1. Completely agree. It’s sometimes necessary but tricky to handle. Including too much and/or too soon is among the biggest pitfalls in writing – and it’s certainly one I’ve been pulled up on. The clue is the ‘back’ part – it should stay in the background, only occasionally visible, more often hinted at or mentioned in passing, and only in ways that are needed to serve the main story and carry it forward, Of course, easier said than done …

    • It is a tricky beast to corral. I like that you compare backstory to background. I’ve never thought of it like that. Great analogy!
      And I know full well how difficult it is to chop the backstory. My very first draft of my very first book was all backstory. That was before I ever paid strict attention to the shape and flow of every book I’ve read. And before I’d ever read a book or blog or article on writing. Needless to say, it was a dismal failure. I’ve since learned from that mistake, but it’s amazing how many popular writers still do this. Now it drives me nuts when I see it in published books! Gah!

  2. Sheesh, I’m way behind on your blog. But this post is awesome! And so true! It’s so awful when you get avalanched with backstory before you can even remember the character’s name. Backstory really needs to be fed in a little at a time.

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