May 10th, 2019

Backstory: The More I Know, The Less You Have To

Piper Bayard

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.

Canstock 2014 Oct Rabbit therapy cartoon

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.

Ernest Hemingway determining what to leave out. Photo at his home in Cuba, c. 1953 JFK Presidential Library, Boston, public domain
Ernest Hemingway determining what to leave out.
Photo at his home in Cuba, c. 1953
JFK Presidential Library, Boston, public domain

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.

Frida was here.
Frida was here.

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?

About Piper

Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes
Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

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.

Piper's dystopian thriller, Firelands, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

17 responses to “Backstory: The More I Know, The Less You Have To”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Backstory should be an IV drip, not tube feeding. Readers will wait. Right now, I'm fighting to keep my reveals hidden because I know too much about my characters. I prefer to write until I need more information about the character and THEN go back and figure out why. But I still start my books too early, and usually the first chapter is for me, not the reader. The delete key is my friend. (And in my first couple of books, it was the first 8 chapters that weren't needed, so I'm getting better.)

  2. Back stories are good for flash fiction too.Those stories can be brought to life with some history of the character (s). I will try to add some in future writings.
    Thank you for the advice.

  3. Great post! I'm currently revising my novel and had this exact realization the other day. All of the areas where I have paragraphs of backstory are really the parts where I was trying to learn the characters and figure out the story. I definitely have a great understanding of my characters now, but the reader doesn't need (or want) to know all of that!

  4. Julie Glover says:

    This is one of the things I didn't realize before I began writing books--how much research and thinking about your character's backstory goes into writing a novel, even where not much of that is shown. You can't have a three-dimensional character if they just started to exist on page one with no prior life, but neither does anyone explain their whole backstory to someone upon meeting them.

    Thanks in particular for that great series of questions! That list is worth printing out and referring to when developing characters.

  5. Fae Rowen says:

    What a wonderful article, Piper! You nailed the "thinking about it" BIG TIME. I've been "thinking about" two characters as I've spent the past three years writing, editing and releasing two other books in a totally different universe. I'd written a couple of chapters, just so I wouldn't lose the story. What I actually did, was write down all the backstory I had about the characters. Ha! Thanks again for something I can reread at the beginning—before I write a word—of each book.

  6. LivRancourt says:

    This is such a validating - and entertaining! - post. For my current WIP, don't have much more than a one-line concept (a physician lives with his sister the apothecary and together they solve mysteries) but I've been reading up on Victorian London and mind-mapping the characters. I've been beating myself up a little because so far I don't have any words on this project, but maybe all this groundwork is what needs to happen before I start to write. Thanks!

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    That's a great list! I write stuff like that down as I write, but writing it ahead of time could be more productive. I saw a similar list in a writing plotting planner an author had in a video, but she was selling it and didn't show the whole list. I really appreciate you sharing it.

    denise

  8. Elf Ahearn says:

    Hey Piper, your article could not have been more timely: I'm development editing a manuscript that is chock full of backstory. In this case, it's not just character backstory, but research backstory as well. The fine points of doing X, Y, and Z are carefully explained, yet the H/Hs are not doing X, Y, and Z. Therefore, I am pinning a quote from this article to my refrigerator; "Excess backstory is the visible evidence of we writers telling ourselves our stories."

  9. […] If you’re developing characters, Kristen Lamb delves into crafting the perfect ‘unlikable’ character, while Piper Bayard discusses backstory: the more I know, the less you have to. […]

  10. If the writer knows the backstory, she can't help it showing in the plot - and my rule for myself is that NOTHING is allowed unless the pov character would legitimately think or say it at that exact moment.

    Then, if the plot needs something, I have to make sure the rule is followed, and the character gives the reader the information 'organically,' without the slightest cheating for doing an info dump.

    Now I can't read the novels of many authors who pause to describe each new character in detail - it's just such a halt in the story.

  11. […] Backstory: The More I Know, The Less You Have To […]

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