The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 1

A recent Writer’s Digest article, “Building Backstory” by Larry Brooks, stated that a novelist should show only ten percent of his character’s backstory — the “iceberg principle” he called it. Suspense author and writing instructor Brandilyn Collins holds herself to a firm rule about backstory — none in the opening chapters.

Why such categorical statements about backstory? But perhaps our first question should be, what is backstory?

Mr. Brooks succinctly identifies backstory as “what went before and behind the actual [storytime] event.” Brandilyn’s definition is a bit broader: “backstory is anything that isn’t current action,” possibly including description.

Quite frankly, all that before and behind and not action is boring. Until the reader has a reason to know the “what happened before” information, backstory comes across as superfluous. It isn’t moving the plot forward, but rather, holding it back. Some readers might even be tempted to skip backstory.

Old style fairy tales usually began with backstory, and novels of yesteryear often did as well. Today’s faster-paced fiction, however, requires a different approach.

Brandilyn gives a clear rule of thumb: use backstory “only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action.”

Let me illustrate this with the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury. As written, the story begins this way:

Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The emperor’s love for clothes was well known. Traders, merchants and weavers from far and wide would bring fine silks, flowered brocades and softest satins to sell to the Emperor, knowing he would buy even the most expensive cloth if it caught his fancy. One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, arrived in the Emperor’s city and asked to meet him. The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor to himself. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

The Emperor in his imaginary new clothes.

I marked the backstory in reddish brown. The actual inciting incident was the arrival of the two con men.

But, you may be thinking, the reader needs to know the facts in those opening paragraphs. Yes, and no. The reader doesn’t need to know all of it right away.

Nor does the backstory need to appear together in one lump sum. Instead, the facts detailing what came before (the emperor spending his days thinking about and buying new clothes) or what is behind the story (the two men are crooks) can be sprinkled throughout as they are needed. Hence, the opening of this fairy tale could go something like this:

One day two men, claiming to be skilled weavers, came to a city ruled by an Emperor famous for his love of beautiful clothes. At once they asked to meet him.

‘Sire,’ they cried, bowing low before the Emperor, ‘the cloths we weave are special – not only do they have the most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns, but the clothes made from them have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who is unfit for his office or unforgivably stupid.’

‘These are clothes worth having,’ thought the Emperor who spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes. ‘If I had such a suit of clothes, I’d know at once the men unfit for their office, and be able to tell the wise from the foolish! This cloth must be woven for me immediately!’ The Emperor gave orders for the men to be provided with every facility, and commanded them to start their work at once.

Clearly there is more backstory that needs to be included. Based on this opening, the reader would not yet know that the two men are crooks, but that’s one of the advantages of weaving backstory in rather than delivering the goods ahead of time.

The reader is left to wonder if the two men claiming to be weavers have some magic ability or if they are duping the unsuspecting emperor.

The question makes the story more interesting and creates curiosity. The reader will want to continue reading if for no other reason than to find out the answer to the questions the missing backstory creates.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 1

  1. I got so excited about the story of my villain that my first mistake when I began writing was in trying to tell her story. But after a rewrite totally thought to eventually weave it in so it doesn’t take the forefront of the story at all and we can focus on the heroine.

  2. Nikole, that’s a great example how backstory can negatively impact a story. Thanks for sharing that.

    Becky

  3. Jay

    I just posted about this as well! I remember reading Moby Dick and the history of whales and whatnot. And Poe’ Arthur Gordon Pym story went into useless detail about an island’s wildlife. Not necessarily backstory, but a strange overabundance of information irrelevant to the plot.

    The first draft of my current novel was rife with backstory. Cut cut cut cut cut…

  4. I have a lot of backstory in my novel that is out now. And one editor recently said she thought the pace was too slow. It’s something I’ll have to think about.

    Thanks!

  5. I’m going to check out your post, Jay. You’re right about Moby Dick — so much information that isn’t really a part of the story. Certainly Brandilyn Collins would consider that info backstory. I’m unfamiliar with the Poe piece you mentioned, but since you couple it with Melville’s opus, I get the picture!

    Cutting backstory is only part of the work, I think. Weaving it back in when it’s needed is the other part. 😉

    Thanks for the input.

    Becky

  6. I think it’s important in this contemporary writing climate to think about what the reader needs to know. I’ve seen in some of the better novels I’ve read lately how much is presented as a secret. The protagonist has this something in her past that’s affecting the present and motivating decisions. Readers, then, become captivated by this “what happened before” issue. So when backstory is delivered, it’s actually quite satisfying as it fills in the gaps of what the reader has already inferred.

    My question is, do YA novels follow that same pattern?

    Becky

  7. Jay

    Here’s the post.
    http://www.jaydinitto.com/?p=2958

    I recommend the Poe story. It’s kind of a novella and it tends to drag, but something about it I really enjoyed.

  8. GREAT post. I read somewhere that readers need to care about the character RIGHT NOW; if they don’t, they sure won’t care about anything that happened earlier.
    Also I have to add that not only is “The men were not real weavers at all, but crooks” backstory, it’s a classic example of telling. Just loved this post!

  9. Thanks, Jamie. That means a lot coming from you. 😀

    You’re right about the crooks line suffering from telling. A lot of myths and fairy tales do. Part of this type of omniscient voice, I think — that narrator takes it upon himself to impart information he thinks the readers need to know.

    I enjoy tackling subjects like this — in the process, I think I learn the most.

    Becky

  10. Thanks, Jay, I’ll keep an eye out for that one.

    Becky

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