Six impossible things

Backstory, part 2

While the amount of backstory the writer needs to make up, and whether they make it up in advance or as they write, varies a lot depending on the writer’s process, the amount that goes into the story has almost nothing to do with the writer’s process, and everything to do with the needs of the story.

Ideally, the story needs enough backstory at any given moment to intrigue readers and allow them to understand the plot, to make the characters plausible, and to make any major revelations or plot twists believable without giving them away beforehand…but not so much backstory that it bogs down the pace, makes some subplots or characters seem more important than they are, or confuses the reader.

This can be a tall order, because “enough” is a moving target. Even the absolute bare minimum that readers need to know to comprehend the story varies from reader to reader, and when you add differences in taste on top of that, you can get a surprisingly wide range. I once got comments from a person who, as near as I could tell, wanted each character’s first appearance to be followed immediately by a detailed physical description and at least three pages about important events in their life so far, regardless of how important that character was to the story. The majority of readers I know would skip over such an infodump the first couple of times they hit it, growing steadily grumpier each time; if the story had a lot of new characters, they’d eventually give up and go read something else.

The other difficulty comes because writers also have preferences (both as writers and as readers), and this tends to skew their ideas of how much backstory a given tale needs and where it ought to go. Sometimes, this is a good thing; other times, not so much. A writer who likes stories where the characters’ backstories come out quickly, in the first couple of chapters, may be in a great position to write a novel in which the story involves the interactions and complications of character relationships rolling forward. The same author may have trouble writing a mystery novel or psychological story in which the climax is supposed to be the revelation of a long-held secret motivation; their instinct and preference for getting the backstory out quickly works against the premise of the story they want to tell.

Similarly, a writer who has spent days or weeks developing a fascinating and intricate backstory for their characters and/or background for their world may find it hard to believe that readers will understand what is going on without being given all of the history and biographies of the characters right away. This can lead to the sort of prologue that tries to be a twenty-page condensed version of the Silmarillion, which doesn’t work on several counts (and which most readers skip anyway, proving the argument that they could understand and enjoy the story even without all that information). Even when the writer avoids the info-dump prologue, they may still be trying to cram explanatory details into every other sentence of the first chapter, often resulting in a dragging pace and the reader’s inability to remember plot-crucial details because they’ve been buried in so much extraneous information.

Sometimes, a writer falls so in love with a particularly cool bit of backstory or background that they insist on getting it into the story, regardless of how relevant it actually is. On occasion, this can work, if the cool bit is just as cool and interesting as the writer thinks it is and if it is brief enough that it won’t cause the plot to drag. After all, “intriguing the reader” is one of the things one hopes to do with backstory. Consider how many Sherlock Holmes pastiches have been written about the giant Rat of Sumatra, a bit of backstory that was only ever mentioned in passing in one story in the Holmes canon. Obviously, that apparent throwaway line caught a lot of people’s imaginations.

One can, however, get too attached to the throwaway line, and end up overusing it. A single reference to the giant rat of Sumatra is intriguing without getting in the way; repeated references to the rat make it seem plot-important, and readers are likely to get frustrated when it doesn’t appear. Similarly, too many throwaway references to unexplained and unnecessary backstory isn’t atmospheric; it just makes it look as if the writer didn’t do his homework and is trying to cover it up by throwing out phrases at random.

I personally find it much easier to make the hard judgement calls if I’ve done some advance thinking about how much readers need to know, when they need to know it, and how much cool-though-extraneous detail a given story can tolerate. A story that’s intended to have a leisurely pace and/or involve in-depth uncovering of a lot of characters’ backstories (as with the suspects in a murder mystery) may have room for more cool backstory about minor or secondary characters than a fast-paced action-adventure or thriller. There are still times when I have to be firm with myself; yes, the story of how Minor Character X was an army signal drummer before he saved the life of the Elf Prince and got sent off to be made a healer against his wishes is really cool and interesting…but it doesn’t belong in this book.

Once again, I have rambled on at enough length that I’m going to have to leave the actual how-to part for next week. Sorry.

  1. Interesting timing on your post. Just this week I was brushing up a short story and had to take out some backstory/worldbuilding bits. It was a little sad, since to me as the author, they enhance the story. But for the readers it would have just made it confusing.

  2. Relatedly: “Beware of Really Neat People your characters meet―they may want a book of their own, and if they do, should be tossed right out of your novel as usurpers.”
    —C. J. Cherryh

  3. I’m one of those writers who worries about readers not understanding if they’re not given enough backstory up front – or worse, misunderstanding and then clinging to that misunderstanding despite my later explanations.

    So when a character uses a mental probe to check the oven temperature at the start of a story, I don’t want the reader to conclude that she’s a powerful psychic, or that she’s a secret mutant witch hiding among normals, or that the oven is a special one-off invention of a Mad Scientist she’s cooking for. Not when the actual backstory is that it’s an alternate timeline where everyone has weak psi abilities – too weak to allow things like casual telepathy, but reliable enough that household appliances routinely have psi-sensitive controls that can be frobbed by those weak mental abilities.

    Or to use a mundane example from an earlier post, if the head counselor of a summer camp lectures campers about not feeding the bears, I worry about the reader/editor who would find it totally unrealistic because “nobody would build a summer camp where there were bears, and if they did, nobody would send their children to it.” I worry about the reader who needs the explanation that it’s normal for summer camps in the Minnesota woods to have bears lurking about.

    • Interesting (should I say deep?) thoughts, Deep! My two cents as follows.

      Re the psi example – I’d hope a reader would be curious enough to keep reading, and you could show other characters along the way who also used psi-sensitive controls – so regardless of where the reader started from, they would eventually have that ‘Aha!’ moment.

      Alternatively, you could show the psi controls not working, and the character could think how frustrating it is to actually have to turn a knob or push a button!

      With the bears: I’m from Australia so the bears we have wouldn’t be a concern 🙂 (just very noisy at night!) … but you could have a character express that concern – a city child frightened of bears being reassured by the camp counselor, or two parents arguing about it on the phone. Or better … the child who can’t resist the impulse to go out in the wood and find the bears!

      But I think in the end the readers you want are curious readers, who want to explore your world and to discover and understand it. Why is that character cross because she has to push a button? Why would someone build a camp in a wood with bears? Curious readers are patient and enjoy the voyage of discovery – and sometimes get irritated when that voyage is too well mapped out for them. It’s a balancing act though, between being too veiled and mysterious (where I tend to lurk) and spelling things out too much. Genre and style and preference, and a dozen other things no doubt, will all weigh in on where the line falls.

      The ones who want complete realism can go read nonfiction!

      • I think that there’s a significant fraction of SF readers who like to treat the world as a puzzle – why did that weird thing happen? What sort of world is this, where things like that happen? Don’t tell me, let me work it out.

        People who come into SF from mainstream fiction often seem to find stories that cater to this very difficult to come to grips with – they’re used to knowing what a car is, but not to working out how a transit pod system works based on observing our hero’s journey to work.

      • The curious readers are the ones it’s fun to write for. Unfortunately, as Deep suggests, there are readers who will latch onto an idea (right or wrong, in-text or self-supplied) at the beginning, and after that no amount of authorial dynamite will shift them. Give them something that absolutely, incontrovertably contradicts that idea, and it’s the text that’s wrong, not their assumption.

        I don’t have a feel for what proportion of readers fall into which category. Nor a good technique for dealing with the fixed-idea ones, though I suppose the ones who have an idea locked in before they’ve read a word of the story you can’t do much about.

  4. “I once got comments from a person who, as near as I could tell, wanted each character’s first appearance to be followed immediately by a detailed physical description and at least three pages about important events in their life so far, regardless of how important that character was to the story. ”

    Norse sagas do that. When a character first appears, the story tells you everything you need to know about him, who his people are, and where he lives and why. And when his chapter is done, it says “Now he goes out of the story.”

    I generally commit backstory when the character has just done something which surprised me, but is totally consonant with her character, but it’s going to puzzle the reader, but I don’t want her to explain The History of Her Life just yet …. in one case I gave her a nightmare that dropped a hint. I don’t say this is the best way of doing it.

    • Sometimes I envy those saga-creators! Also the 19th century authors such as Trollope who, when they wanted to tell their readers something, simply shoved all the characters out of the way, took center stage, and said it before bringing the characters back just as they were.

  5. These posts are excellently timed for me, as I’m right in the middle of working out how much of what I already know readers really need, and what else they need that I haven’t thought of yet.

  6. One complication you don’t mention is the situation I am currently facing where part of the back story to novel 2 is in novel 1. There is a very powerful character in novel 1 who is present, at least off stage, in novel 2, but who I don’t want to play a major role. So far I have a couple of passing references to him which will be understood by someone who read novel 1 but probably not by someone who didn’t. He is a famous person who almost everyone believes is long dead, a fact that was important in novel 1. He is affecting things in novel 2, but not in a major way or a way that demand explanation.

    On the one hand, I think the references are of some value to those who get them, on the other I’m worried that they may be a distraction or even a false signal about what is important to those who don’t.

    Any thoughts on how to handle this sort of situation?

    • Backstory is backstory. Unless you are writing a three-volume novel like The Lord of the Rings, what any story needs is the background/backstory that allows the reader to comprehend the story, plus whatever additional details the writer feels would intrigue the reader and/or add to the richness of the world and culture. If you want to put in Easter Eggs for readers of the first book, that can work as well, as long as it also falls under “intrigues a new reader and/or adds to richness of the world” – i.e., a new reader won’t look at the Easter Egg reference and think “Oh, look, there’s an inside reference I don’t get.” You want the new reader to experience the Easter Egg as if it were a bit of new background you invented just for this book, as a throwaway to intrigue and add to the worldbuilding. Unless, as I said, you’re actually writing a three-volume novel which cannot possibly be understood unless one reads it in order, starting with Volume One.

  7. I tend to feel that the writer should always know more about the world than makes it into the book. (Some writers can get away with putting the worldbuilding notes in appendices.)

    But I’ve met writers who claim, and appear to believe, that everything they know about the characters is on the page.

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