Baby Got Backstory (Part 1)

Backstory presents a challenge to a lot of writers. Not the writing of it. We’re pretty good at that. We can dream up plenty of history about the guy down the street who likes to wear pink, patent leather go-go boots to water his azaleas. Trouble is, some writers don’t know when to stop, or where and how to work it into the story.

There are no hard and fast rules about backstory; like most things in writing, it depends. Readers need to know enough to become invested in the story, but not so much that they get distracted from the action. Some genres need more than others. If you build worlds from scratch, you probably need to provide more explanation than those of us who set their stories on Earth as we know it. You may need to tell the reader that there are two suns, six moons, and seven species of sentient beings on your fictional planet because the rest of the universe exploded, leaving only these survivors, who all speak different languages and would hate each other even if they could communicate. Readers of fantasy and science fiction probably expect a certain amount of backstory.

In other types of fiction, particularly contemporary, less is more, and in all types, how you use it matters.

For example, here’s the opening scene of a book I will probably never write. A female cop and her male partner are chasing a suspect. She’s freaking out, as if this is her first day on the job, even though she doesn’t seem that young. Her partner calls her “creampuff” and tells her to wait in the car and do her nails. She refuses, but at a critical moment, she hesitates. The suspect gets the drop on her, nabs her gun and flees.

There’s backstory here, of course. But when the action is just getting rolling, and you want to hook your reader, it’s probably not the best place to stop everything and explain that Creampuff was her character’s nickname when she was a child star in a famously awful popular sitcom, and after some lost years of youthful indiscretion she went GI Jane and left that world behind. Only her partner, who had a crush on her when he was a kid, recognizes her, yet resents being assigned to “show her the ropes.”

Frontload this into your story and you run the risk of kicking your reader out. We can weave it in later. In slower moments. As they’re commiserating over a beer, maybe. Or during an otherwise boring stakeout. We move on to more action, maybe with some brief touch-ins to the past, then slower moments where we have the luxury to reveal more detail that further hooks your readers and makes them root for her to succeed. Or at least chase a perp without whimpering.

Backstory Versus the Info Dump

Info dumping is the devil, according to some who want to tell you how to write. It has its uses, as M. Edward McNally can tell you here. But at its worst, info dumping is the practice of clumsily whomping your reader over the head with too much backstory-as-exposition before the story even gets rolling. Or worse, as the story gets rolling. Imagine if we’d started our sample novel like this:

Suzy wakes at precisely 4:45 a.m. even though she doesn’t need to get out bed until seven for her new job as a police officer. She turned thirty a week ago, celebrating by herself with cake and champagne because she just moved here from Hollywood and doesn’t have any friends yet, but she looks a lot older. She’s five feet tall, is a size two, has blue eyes and short brown hair that used to be blond. She hates that she wakes up at precisely 4:45 every morning just like when she was five and her mother made her take acting lessons before kindergarten. She gets up and examines her closet: seventeen pairs of multicolored yoga pants and twenty sequined tube tops, each one decorated with a flag of the world. A fan sent them to her ten years ago but she only ever wore the one with the Japanese flag, because she was drunk and she thought it would impress another actor she liked, who turned out to be Korean. Maybe she should have paid closer attention to her history tutor on the set, instead of dreaming of becoming a movie star. She reaches for her boring police uniform. I hope no one at the precinct recognizes me from that old television show, she thinks….

Holy hand grenade, Suzy! Just get dressed and go shoot some bad guys.

BUT…if certain information is so critical to the understanding of a story that weaving it in later loses all impact and doing it as a flashback might distract the forward flow, it may work better as a scene in a prologue. More about prologues and Suzy’s tube tops next week in Part 2….

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “Baby Got Backstory (Part 1)”

  1. Exactly,Laurie. I was told backstory was verboten but in my first book I knew that if Klast was to be the hero we had to know why he didn't seem like the hero type. I did wait until about 50 pages into the story before I put it in and I did cut it in half, but I refused to take it out. As Lin is so fond of telling us we need to do what works, not follow rules.

    1. Absolutely do what works! Readers need some background, but there's often that line…a few brushstrokes could do it without leaving the main action for a lengthy explanation. I read a book once that got an interesting story going, then the author left it for TEN PAGES of not-very-interesting bio about the male lead. I skipped ahead to the story.

  2. Excellent advice, Laurie, thanks. I learned a writer's maxim to always remember that when you stop to describe something in your story, you've stopped the story, so I think there's a fine balance here: to get your reader sufficiently involved in the action so you can then deliver backstory. But it's difficult trick to pull off, that's for sure. Thanks for the help!


  3. Good tips found in this one. Thanks for all the useful information. I'm working on a sci-fi novel now and wasn't sure where the backstory should come in at, front and tell about the aliens home planet, etc… or weave it into the story as it develops. Now, I've got a little more to think of with your above tips. 🙂

  4. I agree with Rosanne — weaving in the backstory is key.

    Backstory is even more fun to wrestle with when you're tackling book 3 of a series. I'm attempting to tread a fine line between telling enough so that a new reader won't be completely lost, and recapping so much that someone who has read the first two books wants to hunt me down and, uh, speak sharply to me.

    1. So true. The same could be said of prologues, especially in a series of books. How much is necessary and how much is too much, and where do you put it? Whoever said writing was easy. 🙂

  5. I was going to write a short comment, but I woke up late today after abusing alcohol, a struggle that runs throughout my family tree, thanks to a combination of Irish DNA and unresolved childhood issues, and then I had sharp words with the mailman, which may become significant later in the story, but I knew this post would be useful in some way and wanted to do it justice, even if by doing so I betrayed my OCD tendencies… tendencies picked up after a traumatic encounter with a closetful of yoga pants.

  6. Great tips! It's always tricky to fold the right amount of backstory into the mixture. It's even trickier with paranormal time-travel and a trilogy! That's why I am Dickens-deficient…just get on with the bleedin' story already ; )

  7. Honestly, I like your 'info-dump' opening much better than your 'original' one. I like it a lot. It draws me in. It establishes her personality. It sets a tone. It gives me a visual up front. I will now be better able to place Suzy in the context of the book as I read it, rather than having a part of my mind distracted, trying to figure out who she is. It's awesome!

    The 'original'…meh, boring! I'm almost no longer interested in the story. It looks like just another 'formula' book. If I want instant action, I'll go watch the latest Michael Bay film. I read books for a good story, character development, and an immersive experience. At least, that's what I keep hoping for every time I open one up.

    1. My original opening wasn't even an opening, Andrew, it was just a summary! Hey, if I'd written a real opening, you'd KNOW it, and Michael Bay would be nervous! 😉 Thanks!

  8. This is often a problem I face a s well – how much is too much? My most recent novel (the second in a series) had a serious info dump that I thought nothing of, but when readers/reviewers pointed it out I realized how detrimental it was to sales of my first book and how boring it was to the readers. It was something, fortunately, I could remedy.

    Lately, on my next novel due out at the end of this year, I was editing (ah, the cruelty!) and found where my entire first two chapters were nothing but info dump. Good back story to explain why my characters reacted to each other the way they did, but boring to the reader. It never got into the heart of the story – after TWO chapters. Yipes! A little creative writing, however, and I've been able to "weave" better. Some 'tis better to step back away from the project for a few minutes to see what fat needs to be trimmed, and what just needs to be rearranged.

    Informative article!

    BC Brown ~ Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy

    "Because Weird is Good."

    P.S. Fab-u-lous ink in your photo!

  9. Series' are good because you can hint at elements of a backstory without bogging down the story at hand, then bring out interesting information about a character in a future volume. It shouldn't be so essential to the original story anyway. A really good story doesn't require 'footnotes'.

  10. I liked your info dump/ backstory! =} So you also demonstrated that the perception of "too much" is inversely proportional to how interestingly it is done. If the backstory is part of the experience, I'll take it.

    1. Thanks, Krista, maybe I should write about li'l Creampuff! Guess I made my "info dump" too interesting. Ah, well! I just don't like the ones that are like a cold bucket of water over the head.

    1. No. Backstory idea came first. "Baby Got Backstory" just natural flow. Later, when I was researching images, I learned that it's was a TV special about Ice-T. Not what I would have thought…

  11. re: backstory: thanks for this post! I'm midway through book 2 of my mystery series and am still uncertain as to how much backstory needs to be there. What I've been doing so far is to try to weave in bits where explanation seems to be needed. Any comments?


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