The perils of backstory

posted in: On writing, Science fiction | 2

I’m busy at the moment doing some massive rewrites of early work and I’ve also spent some time doing some beta-reading. And backstory is the thing that sticks out.

I think one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is ‘what does my reader need to know?’ And that is particularly true for chapter one. When you’re first starting off in this writing game you tend to want to create your world first, tell all about your MC, so everybody is facing the same way. This is particularly true, I think, in SF and Fantasy, where you can’t just say “New York, September 2001”. You tend to want to tell people that this is the year 3000 and that the Galaxy has a decaying Republic. Subversive forces are scheming to find a way to overthrow the republic and put in place an elitist, pro-Human autocracy. It’s a bit like those little prompts that walk up the screen at the start of the Star Wars movies.

I’ll let you in on a secret. Your reader doesn’t need to know that. No, really. They just want to see the farm boy and the droids and the weird old man. Oh, and the princess with the strange hairdo. And that big, spooky villain who breathes funny.

I’m not saying backstory isn’t important. It’s vital. Backstory gives your writing depth. YOU need to know where your MC went to school or (as in my case) how he relates to his mum. YOU need to know why he is the way he is because that will dictate how he behaves. But your reader just wants to read the story. So if it’s not in the plot, toss it out. Or if you must, tell people in offhand ways.

Backstory is often presented as the author telling the reader. Eg “Blackrock was created during the mining boom of the seventies but now the mining company has withdrawn it is beginning to deteriorate.” But you can show your reader the effects – which is probably all s/he cares about. Boarded up shop fronts, peeling paint, only one of the five pubs still operational.

So… the lesson is show don’t tell. And only show what you need to show to tell your story. Yes’m. Getting straight on down and doing that, ‘m.

2 Responses

  1. Lexi Revellian

    One of the worst things beginner writers do is the ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue where characters tell each other things they already know for the sake of the reader. Alas, these writers think this is a cunning way to smuggle in backstory.

    I find that most of the stuff I know about my characters seeps into the novel as I go along. Not all of it, though; I do indeed know which school Ric and Bryan went to, but that’s just background for me.

    I also know a bit about what happens after the novel ends…

  2. Janet O

    I’m revising a novel that had a lot of backstory as the story moved forward. I’m changing all that.

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