If you’re anything like me, and anything like most writers, you want your book finished. Now this is going to sound topsy-turvey, but one of the most effective ways of making your book shorter, of making it less about word count and more about the overall strength of your story, is to make use of backstory.
When I read reviews and talk to readers, among the most common complaints is that the book is full of background information that gets in the way of the story. In fact, a lot of readers will skip over the backstory as soon as they spot it. You probably already do this yourself.
As an editor, I’m constantly asking my writers whether they forgot to cut out a paragraph of character notes, because they have conscientiously written the important details of a character’s life-story into the first or second chapter.
Or they forgot to cut out a paragraph of story world notes, because the book opens with a lengthy summary of all the events leading up to the events of the story.
By writing all this stuff into your manuscript, you’re giving yourself a lot of extra writing to do.
But surely you’re also making the story world richer?
Surely you’re also making the character more rounded, deeper, more believable?
Indeed, surely by giving the reader all this information, it makes it so much easier for the reader to see why the character behaves the way he does; to see why the world, society or culture the book is set in is arranged as it is?
Of course you want the reader to find the story world rich, real and truthful. Of course you want the reader to find the characters rounded, deep, and a product of their rich and detailed past. And backstory is exactly the right way to do it.
However, if your manuscript includes all the backstory, then all you’re doing is bloating the book with redundant detail. Not just unnecessary, but redundant. The backstory doesn’t need to be there, because the purpose you think it serves is already being served.
And it’s being served by the backstory.
You’re right to use backstory. But including it in the manuscript just makes the job of writing it take longer, and fills the book up with details that the reader will feel he already knows, and will skip over.
Even worse than that, reader was looking forward to discovering what sort of person the main character was, through the process of reading the story, and you just revealed it all in a big block of backstory.
Worse still, your explanation of how the main character came to be avaricious and riddled with self doubt looks clichéd and unimaginative. Your explanation of how the society of the book came to venerate eunuchs looks clumsy and unconvincing.
If you’d just kept quiet about it, the reader would have loved the mystery, or imagined something better than you could have.
There is a right way to use backstory. It’s simple, and powerful, and will make your stories stronger and more compelling and easier to write.
I wanted to introduce a secondary character to my WIP. This secondary character is going to die. Someone has to at a particular point in the story, and its her.
I don’t approve of redshirting, as I have explained elsewhere, so in my work, if someone has to die, first they have to be someone.
I introduced the character casually. She was a lesser participant in a multi-way conversation earlier in the book, so to better fix the character in the reader’s memory, I had the main character delegate an essential task to her.
Someone had to do that task, it couldn’t be the main character, so it’s her. This way, the main character has a couple of interactions with her which also means I can show the reader how the main character feels about her. This will increase the impact of her death, later on.
But, as I started working my way towards preparing the scene where this poor young woman would have to die, I began to realize that she would have to take no less than three poor decisions, in order to put herself at risk, and have to choose the wrong person to trust at the crucial moment.
With all the work I had done on the character up to there, I couldn’t see a way of making this seem believable.
Now I hold myself (and my authors, actually) up to a very high standard when it comes to a believable course of events.
It has to be inevitable. Inevitability is difficult to pin down in fiction – it’s not as hit or miss as the physics equations that prove that an asteroid is going to strike the earth. It’s a lot vaguer, but I have a reliable test for it:
Even if the reader did not see it coming, after it happens, the reader has to think: Oh yes. That was bound to happen, sooner or later.
With my young woman, her death just didn’t seem that way. The reader, and I, didn’t know enough about her to be able to say for sure whether she might not have escaped or avoided the situation, even if by accident.
So I decided to deepen the character by giving her a backstory. I used my preferred technique. It is absurdly effective.
I have a stock character who never appears in any of my stories. He doesn’t have a name, and in fact, sometimes he is a she. I call him the Secret Service Recruitment Officer.
His job is simple. He has to interview important people from the past of any potential new recruit, to find out if they are suitable for the job. His special talent is his easygoing nature, that puts people at their ease, and gets them talking.
I have him go and visit all sorts of people from the character’s past. Siblings. Schoolteachers. Ex-comrades and ex-spouse. Coworkers. Drinking buddies. Parole officers. Parents.
He gets them talking, and then he listens, nodding and smiling here and there, occasionally prompting them to go a little deeper. And they talk. They all talk. Sometimes for a long time.
Sometimes he has to interrupt them to tell them that he’s found out all he needs to know. But he’s always gentle and polite when he does.
There’s one crucial feature to this technique:
I don’t write any of it down.
I play out the scene consciously, in my imagination. I articulate every word of the conversation – sometimes I catch myself doing it aloud. Which is fine. If people know you’re a writer.
This way I find out everything I could possibly want to know about the character. Usually, somewhere in there, there’s a detail – an event, a characteristic, an experience – from the character’s past that will give me what I need.
In this case, among other things, I found out that she ran away from her boarding school aged 11, and tried to get to India, alone. She got as far as Turkey before turning back. In all, the trip took her nearly 2 years. The school hushed it up.
That part was complicated and a little far-fetched. Her parents were in the colonial service in India, and she was supposed to stay at the school during the winter and spring breaks.
But you see, it doesn’t matter that it was far-fetched, because the reader is never going to know.
You don’t have to use a Secret Service Recruitment Officer. Sometimes I use a favorite TV detective (Morse and Columbo are very effective, I find). Sometimes I make the rounds in person.
What I’m doing is building up backstory for the character, so that I know her. I know her truth. I know what she would do.
And because I’m looking for someone who would make those bad decisions, who would be reckless, who would assume that whatever happens she can find her own way home… that is exactly what I find.
When it comes to worldbuilding, I call on a different member of staff. This one does have a name. His name is Reg, and Reg is a Loss Adjuster for the largest insurance firm in the universe.
He’s ancient, profoundly cynical, infinitely patient and bottomlessly curious. When I really need to know if my story world will stand up to scrutiny, Reg and I go out into the world, and he asks questions about how it all fits together.
If we meet anyone, they get a patient, polite, third degree. Whatever we see, whatever we do, is scrutinized and studied until Reg is satisfied that it is able to serve its intended purpose.
To work with Reg, generally I take a long walk in the real world. So again, I write nothing down. But any world that looks real, and true, through Reg’s eyes, will stand up to any scrutiny.
And Reg will keep watching, over my shoulder, as I step into new scenes, to ensure that everything fits with everything else. To ensure that it’s all possible.
You see, backstory used to ensure that you, the author, know all the details of your character’s past. Because you know them, the character’s behavior will always be consistent with them.
And a result of that consistency, the reader will perceive, dimly, that behind the character’s actions, there is past that informs and explains them. The reader will be able to guess at some of it, and you will be able to drop small hints, clues, and revelations, that will confirm what the reader has suspected.
That will make the reader think: Oh, yes. That was obvious all along.
Backstory will ensure that you, the author, know all the details of the workings of your story world – whether its the Bronx in 1973 or one of the Icy Moons of Jupiter.
Because you know them, the world will always be internally consistent. Everything will be only where it can, or must, be. So much so, in fact, that will a little sparse description, you will convey enough to the reader that he will imagine exactly the same setting as you do.
The reader will perceive, dimly, that behind all the action in the foreground, there is a whole world supporting it. Behind the hotdog stand, there’s a whole supply-chain economy.
Behind the interplanetary probe, there’s a whole pyramid of logistics – that you won’t have to describe in detail, not because you don’t know what it is, but because you do.
The reader will be able to guess at some of it, and you will be able to drop small hints, clues, and revelations, that will confirm what the reader has suspected.
That will make the reader think: Oh, yes. I could see that.
Of course, you can write down your backstory. If you’re planning an epic or a lengthy series, it might help your sanity to have a database or card-index.
It’ll help you to avoid continuity errors and retcons. But as you get more experienced, I hope you’ll abandon the crutch of written backstory, and keep it all as what you know about your characters and their world.
In the end, however you go about creating or discovering the backstory, the bottom line is this:
If you know the backstory, your book will be the stronger for it. Your characters will be more compelling, your world more believable.
If you keep the backstory to yourself, it will be easier and quicker to write, and your reader won’t lose patience, or skip or ignore whole pages at a time.
But even more than that, the reader will discover the world like exploring a new landscape, and discover the characters like making new friends.
It will be a source of joy and excitement, and most of all, of reader satisfaction.
Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I've learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It's called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.