Backstory is wonderful, but it is also terrible. It’s all in how it’s presented.
I love backstory. It gives the protagonist a reason to keep going when the world is against them. It gives your antagonist the motivation behind their abhorrent acts. Most importantly, it gives your readers a reason to care.
I also hate backstory. Too often, new authors will hit the reader over the head with it like a brick in a curbside brawl. Sometimes, they will even lace their story with so much backstory that the manuscript is more backstory than current story.
According to Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management, “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know – not the stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.” (Source)
To me, this means if it’s something the character is actively thinking or saying – and related to what’s happening in that moment – then it’s part of the story itself. If you are the one that wants them to know, rethink whether it needs to be there at all. If you need to write more than a paragraph to explain something, it’s probably unnecessary.
Avoid backstory like the plague that it is. I know it can be difficult. You’re excited to show off the wonderful world and characters you’ve created. However, unless there’s a reason to explain that detail – a real reason, not just that you want it in there – leave it out.
When I write, I always have a document open for notes. It doesn’t hold any notes for my plot (I’m a pantser, after all), but is full of things about my world and characters. That’s where I write all those interesting things that I, the author, need to know.
My readers don’t need to know the complete pantheon I’ve built for two religions. They don’t need to know how long my character was married, or even how many children they had. The readers do need to know her husband and children died, for that is her motivation.
There are so many things I know about my characters that my readers don’t need to be told. You may ask, then, why do I even need to know all of those things if I’m never going to write it in a book? Even if I don’t write it outright, I can hint at it. I can leave a breadcrumb trail that leads the reader to knowing what I know, without me having to explain it in a page of exposition.
If there is something you really want your readers to know about the world that was before the story, then there is likely a different story there. Consider the Silmarillion. Write that story. Get it out of your system. Then tell the story you initially set out to tell.
When you’re in the story, though, I encourage you to take a step back from your writing and think, “Does a reader need to know this?” If the answer is no, cut it from the book. You may feel like you’re murdering your own children, but it sets you free. If the answer is yes, ask yourself if it can be shortened.
If nothing else, ask yourself if it can wait. I want to get into the action of the current story without having to slog through fifty pages of history. Find a way to put pieces of those pages into the story itself. A character can briefly mention their old love. They can think about their difficult childhood. But only when appropriate.
When you do find that including some of the backstory is necessary – likely to give depth to your characters – use it sparingly. Author Sandy Vaile compared writing backstory to cooking.
“Backstory is like a flavour you can’t quite pick, lurking in the layers of a curry. You know it’s there and it enhances the flavour, but it’s intangible and fleeting.”
Some of the fun in reading is the discovery. I love being able to piece together hints about the character and the world as I venture through the story. It creates excitement, not only to reach the conclusion, but to discover more about the why. I can’t do that when the whole history is explained in the first chapter.
Whether it’s the history of the world or of the character, less is more. I’ll refer to the words of Stephen King.
“The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”