Monday, May 21, 2012

All About Backstory

Blog Me Maybe: May I Tell You Something About Writing

(or better yet, it's not)

The dreaded backstory. We writers love writing it, but we don't love reading it. And we KNOW that agents/publishers don't want ANYTHING to do with it.

But why do we have such a problem with it? I think I, in all my genius (haha), have figured it out.

If you're a pantser like me, you get an idea for a book. Something like this: I'm gonna write a book about this girl who becomes a witch and she's really popular but she loses all her popularity because the witch thing is taking over her life and then she meets this guy who ends up being a warlock but he likes to use his powers for evil and somehow the girl has to convince him to be good or the world will end.

Haha. Seriously, this is one the ideas stewing in my head but I've left it alone because others have done witch stories waaaaay better than I could do. Obviously.

Anyway, so you've got this idea, but that's it. So you sit down and start to write it. And you write and you write and you write. And maybe about halfway through, or maybe even when you're done and rereading do you realize, gah- too much backstory!

Why? Because you're learning the backstory as you go. You are getting to know your character as you write him/her. You're discovering as you go along that maybe said MC has daddy issues, or maybe her best friend died a few years ago, or maybe she's got the need to please everyone because her mom is a successful CEO, or maybe all three. And you're writing obsessive details about these things because it's helping you to shape the character and get to know him/her and why they do the things they do.

(I'm wondering if this happens to plotters? Probably not as much.)

Backstory is just for us, the writer. And I think it's just fine to write it. It's recognizing as you reread, what can be cut out. We the writer need to know every in and out of our characters and what makes them tick- which is why we need to know their backstory. Once we know it, it's up to us to get rid of it from our MS's. It's up to us to use our writing powers to then sprinkle it in lightly, hinting to the reader tidbits of the backstory and then letting them figure out the rest. Not always easy, but certainly do-able.

Anyone NOT struggle with backstory? What's your secret?


  1. I'm a plotter and I still run into this. Yes, a huge part of my plotting process is figuring out the backstories because I create my characters as fully as I can before I start. BUT what I do find is that just because I know the backstories, it's still hard to figure out when to dispel what information throughout the book. And how much. Yanno? I don't think that's a plotter vs pantser thing, more of a universal writer figuring out thing. Ha.

  2. Guilty as charged. I quite often have backstory dumps (especially early on), lots of as-you-know-bob dialogue (wherein the characters explain the whole plot to me) and "stage directions" along with that dialogue (she sputtered angrily) all floating around in my rough draft. It all gets cut later, but it helps me remember what I *actually* need to convey in the scene.

  3. a definite issue for me, and you hit the nail on the head!

  4. I try to imagine the backstory before hand, but I'm more of a "learn as a write" person, too. I totally get bogged down with backstory, too--it must be a side affect! I have no real secret except to edit it out when it gets to be too much.

    Good books aren't written, they're edited :)

  5. Great post! Learning what's appropriate for you vs. your reader is such an important skill. Backstory all you want in a first draft. Then cut, cut, cut. I'm a plotter so my issues are w/ just the opposite - not enough backstory! :)

  6. I'm a pantser. I struggle with it. I've made it my goal not to info dump about the backstory in the beginning of the story. The reader doesn't care about all of that. I tell details that are important as they come up, not all once. I probably have some to cut through still. I just love back stories. Too bad the reader doesn't. Oh well.

  7. I think it's important to directly state some backstory if it's part of a narrative setup and it would be too awkward or confusing to dole it out in bits and pieces. Just so long as the first 20 pages or whatever don't consist of biographical sketches and such.

    I think some people have backstory confused with buildup; i.e., a book might not begin with the precise inciting event for the main storyline, but things are definitely building towards it. And the events that are set in motion are that much sweeter, because they were anticipated and gradually built towards. It's just like how some songs start with a minute or so of just musical intro before the singer comes in. That's not necessarily bad, so long as it's building towards something great.