We’ve all read books with page after page of backstory. Okay, we’ve all skimmed books with page after page of backstory. We likely have even some of those books ourselves. Where does that extra verbiage come from, and why do we put it in?
There is an easy answer. Excess backstory is the visible evidence of we writers telling ourselves our stories. That backstory is there for us, not for our readers. It is the evidence of the sausage being made, and it is drawn from the period of time when our ideas are taking shape. Put simply, when we don't know what we're writing about before we write it, backstory is a dead giveaway.
I know what you’re thinking. . . . One more blog on the virtues of plotting.
No. This is about the virtues of forethought and how that forethought naturally eliminates undue backstory in our manuscripts.
But I’m a pantser! My story must be free to unfold at will and unfettered by the bondage of forethought!
Forethought this: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business. Any successful business requires forethought.
We all write for different reasons:
- Therapy—because it’s easier than talking
- Therapy—because we love words
- Therapy—because we’re unemployed
- Therapy—because writing is the closest thing we have to talking to adults while we care for our babies
- Therapy—because stories are swirling inside our heads and must get out
- Therapy—because a world where we don’t write is simply inconceivable
- And some of us write for therapy.
Regardless of our reasons, forethought is our most powerful tool for shaping a story and actually getting it on the page.
To be clear, when I talk about forethought, I’m not necessarily talking about plotting.
I’m talking about people. The characters. Also, for all of the sci-fi folks, I'm talking about world building. I recommend that sci-fi writers read through this article a second time and exchange the word “characters” for “world building” so that pages aren't wasted telling us how the planet was formed in the belly of a lizard and coughed out in the hairball of the cat that ate the lizard on the night the cat was locked out of the house because it had gotten mad when its owner ran out of soft food and only gave it hard food so it had peed on its owner's clean laundry. In other words, to naturally eliminate backstory, sci-fi folks need to know characters and the world before diving into a story.
The single best way to eliminate backstory for our readers is to know our characters and our world inside and out before we write the first draft. That prevents us from having to tell ourselves our stories when we should be telling them to our readers.
- How old are they when the book starts?
- What do they look like?
- Where were they born?
- Where did they grow up?
- Did they go to school? Where?
- What is their religion? Do they believe it, practice it, play along with it, or reject it?
- What were their relationships with their parents?
- What were their parents’ occupations and educational levels?
- Who was their first love? How did it end?
- What were the watershed events in their lives, and how did our characters change because of these events?
- How did they meet the other characters?
- What are they afraid of?
- What are their inner conflicts?
- What are their emotional wounds? How did they get those wounds? How old were they at the time?
- What do they want?
- Who is keeping them from getting what they want?
- Absolutely anything else we can ask ourselves about our characters.
In other words, we don’t just need to know our serial killer, Terrell, is a psychopath. We need to understand exactly how Terrell became a psychopath, what sort of a psychopath he is, and why he is where he is when the book starts.
I recommend answering this list of questions for the antagonist, the minions, the protagonist, the love interest, the allies, the mentors, and anyone other character who has more than twenty lines in the book.
So how does knowing all of this about my characters minimize my backstory?
The answer is summed up in a quote from Hemingway. “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, we can leave out anything as long as we know what we are leaving out.
This is twice-true with backstory. So we must know our backstory, in order to leave it out. On the other hand, if we DO know it, we don’t feel compelled to put it in. We can focus on telling our story to our readers, instead.
As an added bonus, when we know our characters, they will tell us our plot.
We never have to wonder what’s going to happen next, because our characters will behave in characteristic fashion. We avoid moments of “Oh, no! What is Frida going to do now that Gomez has left her?” Easy. We can look at Frida’s character profile and let Frida do Frida. If Frida’s a whiny brat, she will whine about losing Gomez. If she has anger management issues, she will hunt down Gomez and run over him with her car. If we know our characters, our plot is less likely to stall or leave us hanging.
Let me reassure you of this method with a little of my own backstory. My first manuscript SUCKED. No, seriously. It sucked with capital letters. My editor spent five hours (count ’em—five) on the phone telling me just how bad it sucked. That manuscript is now being used for enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo, and no one has lasted past page twenty-five without spilling the goods on their own mother. The US Navy sends me thank you notes and cookies for my birthday each year.
Out of 157,000 words (really) I threw out all but five—a, and, the, but, or—and I started over by getting to know my characters.
When I sat down to re-write the book, I discovered something. I naturally left out everything except the actual story. It was an epiphany. As a result, I have a far better story. That book became my debut dystopian thriller, Firelands.
Once I knew my characters' stories, I didn't have to spend the whole book figuring them out. It makes all the difference.
What are your issues with backstory? Do you develop your characters before you write?
Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She is also a belly dancer and a former hospice volunteer. She has been working daily with her good friend Jay Holmes for the past decade, learning about foreign affairs, espionage history, and field techniques for the purpose of writing fiction and nonfiction. She currently pens espionage nonfiction and international spy thrillers with Jay Holmes, as well as post-apocalyptic fiction of her own.
Visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.