Friday, June 3, 2011

How Important is Back Story?

A few days back, Livia posted about back story* in YA on her writing blog. She did an awesome analysis of how much of the text was back story (and further divided, check the post to see). In response to a comment I made, she said that she used to think that back story should be implied, but from her experience, it wasn’t enough. Anyway, after reading this, I started to wonder about the importance of back story, and the type of back story that is needed.

Firstly, as far as I can figure out, the amount and degree of back story varies from person to person. However, herewith follows my experiences as both a reader and writer.

I recently read a book where back story was very explicitly done. There were a few flashbacks and normal references to past events, but what caught my attention the most was the rest (of the back story). Often, at the beginning of chapters, there would be a passage (about one or two pages) that dealt exclusively with back story. It explained things (such as terms used in the previous and following chapters) to a great extent. However, it also stopped the story dead in its tracks. One of the aspects of great writing is that one shouldn’t start a story with back story, nor give back story in huge chunks. However, there are no real rules in writing. They are suggestions that can be left out if you are willing to pay the price.

In the book, the back story passages were not necessary for me to follow the story, but necessary if I wanted to know what the terms meant (much like the glossary of terms in Dune). Could it have been done better? I suppose so, but a lot of information would have been lost. Though it might be parts that are skimmed by readers, they weren’t terribly long, and they were mostly things I was wondering about anyway. So I read them all. (Then again, I never skim. Ever.)

Back story can be used any way, as long as it doesn’t jar readers so badly that they lose track of the story. Then your tension is gone and you’ve lost your readers’ interest. However, you must have back story in some explicit way (I’d like to see it anyway). Otherwise, your readers might feel you rushed into the story too quickly or you will lose your readers with the “Huh?” (Orson Scott Card once said that a reader can at any stage feel “Huh?” “So what?” “Oh yeah?”, each representing a different flaw). If they don’t know what’s going on, there’s a problem (unless you intended it that way; as I said, any rule can be broken).

So I agree with Livia. Sometimes, there HAS to be explicit back story. Without it, it might feel too rushed or unexplained. As a writer, I have to take this into consideration and find the perfect balance where I have enough back story, but not too much.

* My spell checker says ‘backstory’ isn’t a word. I find this highly irritating.

What are your thoughts on this?


  1. Backstory (one word!) is an important part of practically every story. Like any tool it can be misused or implemented poorly. The reason it's highlighted so much is that it's the first mistake a lot of new writers make.

    You've got this character you've dreamt up. You want the reader to know all about her, so why not give a quick life symopsis?

    The problem is, to the writer the character is an old friend, so the minutiae of their lives is interesting (the way it is when you chat to a close friend). For the reader it's like being introduced to a person at a party and they won't shut up about themselves. I like this, I went to school there, on my holidays I went to blah, blah, my favourie colour is... who cares?

    The trick is to feed backstory in when the reader wants to know. You don't make the character interesting by providing backstory, you make the character interesting first (through their actions), which then makes the reader curious to know the backstory.

    And you provide enough backstory to satisfy that curiosity (or maybe just a little less).

    Moody Writing

  2. Indeed. When a character is so well developed that the reader wants to know the backstory (I wonder why my spell checker hates me...), then that would be a good time to tell it.

    Thanks for your thoughts.