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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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