Friday, September 16, 2011

How Much Backstory to Add in Our Books?

The first book I wrote in my life had pages and pages of backstory, actually each chapter started with backstory which was nearly one third of  the chapter. I tried to cram in as many details as possible of backstory, even details the story didn’t need and details that readers could have done without. Needless to say the book was inflated and the story lacked pace as it was weighed down with oodles of backstory.

At one time I was such a backstory junkie that every chapter began with a couple of pages of backstory concerning all the characters in that scene. That book was turned down by an editor as being too long. She even asked me to eliminate around 25,000 words from it. I was shocked. This was during the time when I considered cutting even one word from my story as sacrilege.

As I read more and more books, and ofcourse wrote more and more, I started looking at ways other writers of successful books added the backstory.

I have noticed that great books have backstory added little by little. Small details added throughout the book do not bore the readers or slow the story down. They infact help in pacing the book.

Another point I noticed was that only the information that furthered the plot was crucial, anything that did not move the story forward could be deleted.

I became a backstory watcher when I read any books. Backstory details are important when they are relevant to the scene. If the details ties up in some way with the scene, then it earns its place. If it has no relevance to the scene it has earned its right to be chopped.

Backstory that in some way is crucial, it brings meaning to a character’s action, adds layers to his personality, or explains a character’s motive, by all means should stay on the page. Else, its bye-bye time for that particular piece of information.

I have read that backstory can add depth to a story. Backstories are usually revealed, partially or in full, chronologically or otherwise, as the main narrative unfolds. Many writers create portions of a backstory or even an entire backstory that is solely for their own use in writing the main story and is never revealed in the main story.

There are many ways to reveal backstory: flashbacks, dialogues, direct narration, summary, recollection and exposition.

I have come a long way since then. Nowadays, I carry my word scissors whenever I edit. I no longer feel guilty while I am chopping. Infact, I enjoy the entire editing process.

Let me confess, shedding this backstory habit was pretty difficult. I had a tough time restraining myself. What about you all? How much of backstory do you think our books need? What kind of backstory information do you think bores readers? Please share your backstory tips with us.

P.S. When you get the time friends, do drop in on Kim's blog -Wrestling the Muse, to read my guest  post on Creating Enduring and Memorable Characters. I would love to see you all there.

Click on this link to get a realistic picture of how much money writers should expect from their writing careers.


  1. Don't use any back story, Rachna, anything of this nature I avoid. Difficult when writing a sequel, but so far I'm managing fairly well - have so far only lapsed with one sentence, but we'll see. :0)

  2. Yep – had the same problem for my first book. Have kept it fairly minimum in the second, and sufficiently weaved in to the narrative too.

  3. I use backstory to guide what my characters do, but very little makes it onto the page unless it becomes relative to the plot. :-)

    I love editing too.

  4. Backstory is important and I like to read it throughout the story. Its also a great way to hide clues that reappear later on.

  5. A bit of backstory sprinkled in is great. But I see manuscripts that are drowning in it. Not good.

    Some stories have to have it. I tell all the writers that I beta read for not to use too much. I show them where they can leave it off and I should them how much better it reads without it.

    It's a tricky little monster, isn't it, Rachna? :-)

  6. I am about half way through my second book now. There is an entity called "Hyperion Industries" that plays an important roll in the series. I have no back story for it, nor is there any place for a back story in the Trilogy.

    One of the characters in my trilogy is a time traveling mage. Because he can hop around through time, it gives me a cheat, out, and endless material to write with. Last night, I sat down and outlined 5 short stories that should be 4-8,000 words in length. The first 4 are all stand alone. The 5th story is how characters from the previous stories come together and form Hyperion Industries.

    I now have my back story.

  7. I like to use flashbacks as my form of backstory, only when it's triggered by something in that scene. In my novel, my character walks out into the rain during halftime of his basketball game, this triggers a flashback of the worst day of his life, which took place during halftime of a basketball game. If i don't use flashbacks I'll usually hint at it through dialogue.

  8. It took me a LOOOONG time to get rid of all the unneeded bits of backstory in my opening chapter. I'm still not positive I've got all of it, but it's got to be close! I'm just to tied up to see straight anymore.

    I don't know if I'll always use the same backstory method. I'd like to hope I use a variety. In this book, I used dreams, introspection, dialogue.... I started off with a LOT of dreams, but that's long since been pruned. :D

  9. I tend to be an under-writer and skimp on the backstory. I have the opposite problem as you and always have to go back (usually several times) and weave in bits of history here or there.

    And I think your story needs as much backstory as your story . . . well, NEEDS!

    Great post Rachna!

  10. I think a little backstory is usually necessary, sprinkled in lightly and subtly. Like, no more than a sentence or two in one spot; no info dumps. And working it into conversations if possible can make it more palatable.

  11. Rachna, you're so full of writing talent! You really should have workshops! Or do you already? <3 I try to write my back story with implied history and reveal through dialogue--too much of that sounds very narrative, though. So I weave it in through MC internalization. It's a balance that needs to be watched or the reader will feel saturated!

    Have a fabulous weekend, friend! <3


    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?

    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

  12. I've struggled with this as well, but these days I try to only put in as much as is necessary for the story. It's great to know it for yourself though, to help you shape your novel.

  13. I have a hard time with this too. I develop a lot of backstory for my characters, and I've found that sometimes the best way to reveal it is to have the character act/react to something that IMPLIES their backstory. You can even give small hints (or slightly larger ones if the character arc and story require it), but it's through the actions that I love to watch backstory come out.

  14. Rachna, have you done a post on how to start a book? do you start with chracters, a plot, a location? Id love to know...or maybe recommend someplace I can go read.

  15. yes, it's always so tempting to throw in all that backstory. I usually try not to worry about it too much for my first draft. Then in the edits I weed it out or weave it through a bit more (as opposed to keeping in the big blocks of it).

  16. Yes i like to add back story though i read that it must not appear until the 2nd or 3rd chapter and not on the 1st page of a short story. Somtimes it can take over the writing. I prefer it when the information is fed into the plot in subtle snippets or cleverly woven scenes :O)

  17. Great food for thought, Rachna! I've heard that you shouldn't use any backstory for at least 30 pages into a book, but I have seen it done both ways. Perhaps it is a matter of preference and what seems to work. Playing around with it in my WIP.

    Thanks for the links. Will check them out!

  18. P.S. Enjoyed your guest post - didn't see a place to leave a comment so just wanted to let you know. :)

  19. I think you have to feel out the backstory required for each character. If it feels too tedious creating a character's backstory beforehand, I don't worry about it and usually follow Stephen King's "unearthing a fossil" philosophy. As I write, tidbits of character info not necessarily related to the immediate story pops up and I file it away thinking, "hmm that's interesting, maybe it'll pop up again some day in the story" and if not, before you know it, you've subconsciously created a long list of tidbits about that character's life.