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Best Way to Handle Backstory | Live Write Breathe

What’s the Best Way to Handle Backstory?

It’s been a while since I’ve done a ‘Writing Questions Answered’ post, so when Eric Owens asked me a good question, I decided to respond to it through the blog. Thanks for your support of this site, Eric, and for permission to share your question:

I have a question about backstory. What is best? To do a long backstory meaning several paragraphs or one page or hint at it time and again throughout the story?

How to Handle Backstory

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is explaining too much, too early in a story. Tipping your hand in this way robs later scenes of impact and can mean the difference between a story that succeeds and one that fails to engage readers.

This happens for a number of reasons.

Being in the process of discovery while working out a story, especially one you haven’t outlined in advance,  makes it hard to manage the reader’s experience. In other words, how can you unfold plot points until you know what they are? This is one reason to use a plotting system, but this problem is not exclusive to pantsers. All writers sound out a story as they write it.

Helping readers into the story world is a worthy ambition, but forgetting to credit your reader’s intellect makes a virtue into a flaw. An insecure writer needs to tell what has already been shown. Make sure you have communicated what you intended, and then trust your reader’s engagement.

Hasty writing causes telling rather than showing, and this creates ripe territory for backstory dumps. It’s much easier to blurt out information than it is to use the imagination to build a scene or incorporate necessary details in natural dialogue. Writing a first draft quickly will produce this kind of thing. Content editing is the solution.

Backstory dumps, if you weren’t aware, are when a writer artificially injects backstory into a scene. Always, always, story details should be relevant to the scene.

Prevention is always better than curing, though. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind as you write is to leave backstory out of the first fifty pages of a manuscript. This is what agents and editors expect, nowadays. Although seemingly harsh, this forces you to reveal only what the reader needs to know in the moment. Like any writing rule, this one can be discarded in favor of the demands of a story, however knowing the rules before throwing them over applies, and I wouldn’t advise such a leap for a beginning writer.

So how can you tell which story details to include and which to leave out?  This is what works for me: I handle backstory on a need-to-know basis. If my reader doesn’t need to know something right then, I don’t expect them to keep track of it until later. I only reveal story details as they become necessary, and never all at once. I don’t want to bog down the pacing of my scenes with an influx of extraneous details, ever.

This system serves me well, as evidenced by reviews like this one for DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven 1,. Readers describe my books as page-turners and sometimes consume one of my novels in a single sitting. Keeping my stories free of backstory dumps and doling out information at the point of relevance is one of the techniques that causes this kind of reaction.

Handling backstory can seem like a confusing juggling act, especially when you are first learning how to write a novel. That’s normal. Feeling awkward at the writing craft is part of the process of mastering it. Read Closing the Creative Gap for further thoughts on this.

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How to handle backstory (Your Writing Questions Answered) by Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe

Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

6 thoughts on “What’s the Best Way to Handle Backstory?”

  1. You know, this sounds good, but when I deconstruct the bestsellers I read, guess what? So much backstory in the first few pages. It seems there’s rules for newbies and no rules for the successful author who’s been around for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you. I tend to do info dumps but I know they’re just for me to deal with later. I don’t like a lot of backstory early, but just sayin’.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Denise. Every publisher is different, but I believe bestselling authors sometimes do get a pass on editing. With regard to rules, I like to think of them as best practices. They apply to any writer, but shouldn’t be thought of as strait-jackets.

      I’ve been reading books by vintage authors lately, and some of the “rules” we stand by today weren’t in force when they were written. Would these books have been better for the application of some of our modern writing rules? Possibly, but we’d have lost some of the charm.

      In a commentary on Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, I mention that she goes on for pages of description when today we are told readers want only a couple of lines of description at a time. You know what? I was hanging on word after beautiful word of description, and I’m a modern reader.

      Story should win out over arbitrary rules, when the two are at odds.

        1. I know what you mean but should add the thought here that when most writers ramble, it often doesn’t help a story. It really does take a mastery of craft to engage readers throughout long descriptive passages.

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