How Much Back Story is Too Much?

Respected literary agent and blogger Rachelle Gardner discussed in a post how much “back story” is appropriate to include in a work of fiction. Her conclusion? Less than a paragraph. This view is echoed by many agents and publishers.

Fifty years ago, authors liberally used back story as a means to introduce the reader to the characters and their motivations in a novel. Today, back story is something to be avoided. Why? First, let’s define back story. Back story is everything that has happened before the story begins. It includes the characters’ history, events, upbringing, and major life milestones.

The problem with back story is the reader doesn’t need to know all of the mundane details of a character’s life—especially when presented in a multi-page info dump. It is considered bad writing because it takes the reader out of the story. The reader only needs to know those details pertinent to the story and those details must be told in a manner that heightens the inherent tension and conflict of the novel.

This presents the writer with a dilemma. How does the writer set up the story, reveal the character’s hopes, dreams and fears, without delving into the character’s past? There are ways to do it without making it sound like back story. Visualize delivering back story through a sprinkler rather than a firehose. Giving to the reader all at once will knock the reader over with the sheer force of the water, but sprinkling it throughout with deft droplet in dialogue and action scenes is an effective technique..

Let’s say your main character is a man who has failed at every business he has attempted, but still dreams of untold riches. His wife knows differently and the gap between his dreams and reality is a source of tension in their marriage. Now the writer can spend pages chronicling the man’s business woes, but that would bore the reader. How about a dialogue scene that would read something like this:

Man [sitting at laptop]: Honey, come here. Check out my latest business plan. This one can’t miss.

Wife: Sure, I’ve heard that before.

Man: No this one’s a winner.

Wife: Look, I’ve had it. We both know that every half-baked idea you’ve hatched turns out to be a rotten egg.

The dialogue could continue in this vein as the man’s wife points out each one of his business failures. This way of letting in the back story is superior to exposition because it also reveals much about the couple and the underlying tensions in their relationship. It also speaks about a man who doesn’t give up on his dreams, and creates a degree of sympathy in the reader.

Another effective strategy for divulging back story is to wait until the time is right. Don’t tell the reader the main character can’t swim until his friend is drowning and it’s up to the character to save him.

When I was working on my first novel, Small Change, the original version of the story started when the main character was 10 years old. I couldn’t get the voice to work, so I chopped out the first four chapters and began the story when he was 14 years old. My first thought was that I lost a lot of essential back story, but when I finished the manuscript, I found I didn’t lose much at all. I was able to weave the important attributes of the main character and the essential family history into other scenes.

It’s essential for the author to know the back story, but she must be careful in how much and when to reveal these details to the reader.

What is your view on back story? Is it ever appropriate?


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8 responses to “How Much Back Story is Too Much?

  1. Back story is entirely necessary. The point that I think is more important is that no matter how much you reveal the author must know the entire back story. I am wholly with you on the paragraph though. Nobody likes to read pages of back story. I’ve spoken to alot of authors who seem to think that the fashion for omitting back story is an easy way to get out of planning (which i guess is a separate subject).
    Thanks for the insight.

    • Jaki,
      Thanks for your comment. You are right on the money when you say it is important for the author to know the back story, even if a lot of it doesn’t get used. I like to use dialogue to reveal snippets of back story, but it can’t sound like the character is telling another character what they already know. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Pat

    Yes, I’m with you in theory, but I’m revising something where the backstory is where all the motives lie and it is huge. Little of it can be left out and it applies across four characters.
    I tried beginning in the past and telling the story chronologically and decided it detracted from the suspense of the more modern story, so now it’s told in the present, interweaving strands of their past lives through the novel. It’s hard, but I hope it’s working.
    As always with these things, I think it depends.

    • Pat,
      Thanks for your comments. There are some techniques you can use to solve your dilemma. I forgot to mention a 14-page passage of back story in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, The Marriage Plot, in which he tells the entire back story of Leonard Bankhead, one of the love interests of the main character. What he did, though, was to write it “in scene,” dropping in background in spots. You can use a flashback scene, but it’s important to give the reader a cue and to write it so it flows like a scene, rather than an info dump. Good luck to you. Thanks again.

  3. Yes! agree . . .!

    I was so surprised when recently I read a multi-published, multi-NYT best seller start her novel with so much backstory in the first few chapters that had I not known this author and how wonderful she is, I may have thought to put down the book! Instead, I did what I often do when I really want to read a novel but parts of it are draggy: I skimmed those parts!

    • Kat,
      I see back story in novels, but only renowned authors can get away with it. Jeffrey Eugenides uses a lot of back story, but he weaves it in and writes it as scenes/flashbacks. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with two pages of back story on the history of the Finch family in Alabama. However I believe minimal back story is the best approach in today’s environment. Thanks for sharing your comments.

      • It is — and even when ‘seasoned’ authors do it, I am often restless. And I don’t even mind meandering literary fiction – there is a difference, isn’t there? :D!

  4. The characters know, embody, have lived the backstory– let it be known, as much as it needs to be, from their actions and observations, from the back and forth of their dialogue, from what is hinted at without being explicated.

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