Backstory

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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For the first time in over six months, I want to write. I hope my writing block is finally over. But I still haven’t started yet. I have a story, almost complete in my head – the plot, the characters, and the milieu – but one question bugs me: backstory.

One of my favorite writers, Jennifer Crusie, is loudly opposed to any backstory in her books. She thinks it is not relevant to the story you’re telling here and now. According to Crusie, any backstory you include in your narrative – a long flashback, a prologue, a memory dream, or small chunks of explanations sprinkled through the texts – always slows down the pace and takes away from the immediacy of what is happening to the protagonist at the moment. The past is already done and gone and can’t be changed.

I happen to agree with her… almost. In rare cases though, I think backstory is necessary. Sometimes, backstory becomes almost a character in itself. Without it, the choices the protagonist makes are incomprehensible to the reader. The protagonist’s decisions might seem cruel or idiotic, unless the reader knows what events in the past prompted them in the present. To make my character sympathetic, I must explain why she acts the way she does.

Or do I?

Some past, if it was traumatic enough, never leaves you. It poisons every thought, affects every action and every relationship. All the revenge stories are like that. To let the pain go, to forget and forgive, might be much more restful. It would also make you a better person, erase the bitterness and the fears that gnaw at your soul, but it is so infernally hard. What if you can’t forgive? In the case of my story, I’m talking about this kind of backstory, although my story isn’t about revenge.

I’m still debating with myself what I should do. Should I include the backstory in one flashback? Should it be a prologue or come out at the appropriate time in the middle of the story? Should I pepper the text with small nuggets of information about the past? Should I leave it out completely and let the reader guess?

What do you think? Do you consider backstory necessary? If yes, how do you deal with it in your fiction? Are there certain types of storytelling or genres that lend themselves to backstory more than others? Tell me in the comments.

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20 Responses to Backstory

  1. cheriereich says:

    I typically sprinkle backstory throughout. After all, I do think it’s important as what happened in the character’s past (and sometimes even longer than that) taints everything the character does in the present. Some of that backstory can be essential in understanding the character and the character’s growth throughout the story.

  2. Juneta says:

    I like Jennifer Cruise too. I do think sometimes backstory if used sparing or with intention can create connection and sympathy with the reader. It works that way when I am the reader, however, too much or used wrong kills it too. For new writers, I think that approach definitely is something to give real thought to–use backstory sparingly or not at all.

  3. I try to work in backstory in brief snippets of memory triggered by something going on, or in dialogue. Sometimes I resort to a line or two of narration when introducing a character, but I try to keep those bits spare. Happy writing in September, Olga!

  4. Personally I’m a fan of backstory -in moderation. I think it is necessary to help the reader connect with the character’s motivations. Flashback, deje vu, introspection, reminiscent dialogue, bad dream . . . used appropriately it can all work for character, scene, and world building.

    I think it all depends on the author preference, and the the target audience.

  5. patgarcia says:

    Hi,
    I personally feel backstory is necessary. It helps the reader to connect to the MCs. I think it is how one includes the backstory, the timing, and the pace.
    Wishing you all the best.

    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  6. spunkonastick says:

    I think some is necessary. Peppering it throughout the story is a good way to relate that backstory to the reader. Remember, no backstory at all is just that author’s opinion.

  7. Widdershins says:

    What works for one author, in this case, Jennifer, won’t necessarily work for any other author, because no two stories are going to be the same or have the same needs.

    Maybe look at your work from the ‘Vernor’s Law’ (Vernor Vinge, SF writer) perspective:
    All scenes need to accomplish at least 2 of 3 things: 1 – Provide background information, 2 – develop the characters, and 3 – advance the plot.

  8. Crystal Collier says:

    Info dumping? Big no-no in my opinion, but I think often some of that backstory is what connects us to the characters, and we’d be foolish to leave that part out.

  9. emaginette says:

    I think backstory is where you character’s motivation lives. On the other hand, I write about murder and people, characters, never getting over a wrong doing until it kills them or someone else. hehehe

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  10. Loni Townsend says:

    I think it varies on the story and the character. Sometimes, lacking that backstory creates confusion because of unclear motives or conclusions. I suppose in many cases, depending on how the backstory is relayed, it could be cut or reduced down to the detective in a murder mystery saying “we found the link between the serial killer and his victims! In every instance, he always picked this type of person.” It’s still backstory, but necessary for the end reader/viewer to know that’s how the connection was made.

  11. Glad you are excited about writing again. I think backstory has a place but it should be weaved in sparingly as necessary. And it’s not as necessary as we think, even when creating a fantasy world like I am. Hope you find the right balance.

  12. Depending on the story, I would opt for any of the options you presented with the exception of prologue, if you can avoid it. I love prologues, but fewer and fewer new authors seem to get away with it the first time out of the gate.

  13. cleemckenzie says:

    I love backstory if it’s fed in properly, One thing I think we as writers are up against is the short attention span of the readers. I include myself here. We are so used to immediate action that any leisurely trip by the author into what happened before, often makes the reader impatient. I’ve noticed that I’m more and more unwilling to give much time to a book that doesn’t move forward. Yet, I love the classics. Maybe I’m willing to cut those some slack. Anyway, write and enjoy the excitement of it.

  14. rolandclarke says:

    I like your thinking, Olga – backstory to make a character comprehensible. That tends to be why I use it but in small nuggets rather than chunks or flashbacks. I am actually writing some shorts that are my main protagonist’s backstory – ones that I at least connect to with the nuggets. And maybe those will get released one day – but not as part of the main novel.

  15. yvettecarol says:

    I think backstory is necessary. I always remember Lee Child’s words, ‘We’re story tellers not story showers.’ 🙂

  16. I’ve heard that starting with backstory is the kiss of death, but then again, I’ve written a prologue that was essentially backstory. Not that it’s published or anything. Hmmm…maybe I’m making my own point. I do like backstory, but I’d vote for sprinkling and/or weaving the flashbacks into the middle where appropriate.

  17. Toi Thomas says:

    Happy Be-lated IWSG Day!
    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog.
    It’s great to hear you are in the mood to write.
    I think genre (fantasy or paranormal, some thrillers) sometimes plays a role in whether or how backstory is included in a story. Ultimately, it’s your call. It can be done in a good way or it can be left out if the story stands alone well. Usually peppering works best. I personally have read stories where I liked the backstory and ones where I didn’t.

  18. I used to think it was important too, but in this new age of ‘action only’ stories it’s hard to included it. It’s the first thing editors tell you to get rid of. Sprinkling it in through dialogue is just about the only way they’ll let you get away with it. Now a days it takes creative finagling to get it past the first edit! Today, I realize how much shorter my first two novels would have been if the ‘backstory’ had all been cut. Some readers still like it — other’s can’t tolerate it. Where there’s a will there’s a way! 🙂

  19. Denise Covey says:

    Glad you’re back into writing Olga. I know backstory has a bad name but few best-selling writers cut it out altogether. I’m a fan of reading it as it makes a character’s motivations plausible. But we all make our own writing choices. I, for one, will never be a slave to ‘writing rules’.If it works for me, great.

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