Six impossible things

Backstory, part one

Backstory is one of the most potentially useful tools in the writer’s toolbox; it’s also one of the most often misused.

First, a definition: Backstory, as I use the term, is anything and everything relevant that has happened prior to the start of the story. For most strictly-chronological, linear stories, it’s easy to figure out where that line is, but if the writer is doing something non-linear, it can be more difficult. I go with common sense and/or instinct in these situations.

For instance, if the story opens in mid-battle and proceeds in order from there, with maybe a couple of flashbacks later on to show key events from before the battle, I’d call the start of the story the battle and the flashbacks a technique for introducing backstory. If, however, the story opens with the main character on his deathbed, and the rest of the story is a “flashback” of his life flashing before his eyes as he dies, I’d say that the story starts with the events of the character’s childhood and is told slightly out of order; the “flashback” is the story, and the backstory would be stuff that happened before the earliest events that are shown. Same thing for the classic “frame” or “as-told-to” story: the story is the part that’s being told, so that defines where the story starts.

There are three closely related things to consider when it comes to backstory: how much, when, and for whom.

Or to put it another way, what you need to pay attention to is how much backstory the particular story needs, at any given time in the writing or reading process (the when), from the point of view of the writer, or the reader, or the characters (the for whom). Each of the parameters varies depending on the type of story, the writer and his/her process, the point the writer is at in developing or writing the story, what the characters know or need to discover, and how much information the readers need to know (or how much the writer wants to give them, which in turn depends to some extent on the type of story).

How much the writer needs to know about what happened before the story started depends on the writer’s process and the type of story. A multi-generational historical novel will probably need a lot more historical and cultural backstory than a contemporary murder-mystery; the murder-mystery may need more backstory on the protagonist’s professional accomplishments and on the history of the cast of red herrings. A short story about the emotional impact of the protagonist’s encounter with a dying alien probably isn’t going to need much backstory about the alien culture or the discovery of the star drive; a novel with the same focus might well need some of those details.


When the writer figures this out is also flexible. Extreme pantsers prefer not to know anything before they start writing the story. Most of the pantsers I know, however, want at least some notion of where their characters are starting from and how they got there, even if they don’t know the historical details behind the settling of other star systems or the formation of the mage’s guild. The rest, they make up when they get to a point in the first draft where they need to know those things.

I personally find it exceedingly useful, in most cases, to know in advance exactly how everyone got into whatever situation they’re in at the start of my novel, and what they are each planning to do next (which naturally never works out). If the main character has had a “normal” life (whatever that means in his/her setting), I usually focus on the bits of their backstory that are unusual or striking, whether the character sees them that way or not.

This is the stuff I figure out during the pre-writing phase, and it’s invaluable for working out my plot overview. If I know what the antagonist is trying to do, I can usually adapt when something utterly unexpected throws everything off course, because the antagonist has a clear objective (conquer the country, steal the magic ring, acquire the powerful magic artifact, get away with the murder), and if something (like the heroes) has interfered with their original plan, they’ll come up with something else.

In short, how much backstory you need to know before you start writing is a moving target. Inevitably, no matter how much you make up before you start the first draft, you’ll end up needing to invent something new somewhere in mid-story (unless it’s a very short story that you have a very clear idea of before you start typing).

Rather than trying to make up or research everything that might possibly be relevant, do what feels like enough…and keep track (mentally, if nothing else) of how well it works. If you make up no backstory at all, and find yourself stalled at the end of Chapter 1 while you make up the protagonist’s extended family or the horrible event that traumatized the sidekick two months ago…well, maybe next time you need to develop more of it before you start. If you’re getting bored working out the main character’s pre-story heroic achievements, maybe you should just get started.

How much backstory the writer needs to put into the story (and where in the story it needs to go) is a separate issue, which I’ll talk about next post.

1 Comment
  1. Moving target indeed! My current WIP is barely past the first chapter because the MC kept bringing in different world-building questions every time I asked him to say goodbye to his childhood friend! (Nearly all of which ended up in the scraps folder)

    Now that he has managed to go from Point A to *next closest location* to meet the 2nd MC… he is doing it again!

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