How Much Backstory is Enough?

I’ve been thinking about backstory lately, and just how hard it is to judge the right balance.

I think part of the problem is that it can come down to a personal choice. Depending on the preferences of the reader or critiquer giving the feedback you can get either no comment, a request for more information, or a desperate plea to cut! Cut! All for the same piece of work.

One of the crit groups I was in had no other writers working on fantasy. That was good when it came to clarity and brevity, but the sort of atmospheric description that often makes a fantasy manuscript was pretty much taken as unnecessary padding by this group. It’s hard to stand in the face of such united feedback, even if it is dead wrong for your manuscript. I learned a lot from that group about putting in only what was necessary and cutting sections that described the same thing from different perspectives. But, based on that experience, I really started to think about the point of view of the person giving the feedback and making some real judgements about whether the suggested changes would take me in the direction I wanted to go.

The rule of thumb is to cut backstory to an absolute minimum in the beginning of the story. It’s a good maxim. I try hard to do this, but there are limits. Many of my worlds, particularly the fantasy ones, have lots of new concepts and terms that need to be explained from the beginning for the story to make sense. I’m caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. I’m still trying to puzzle that one out.

The other thing that makes me unsure about this is that many stories seem to launch straight into huge sections of backstory/reflection and work well and also find commercial success. In this case it is almost always supporting the establishment of character, rather than the world, but it’s still backstory.

I guess I fall into the same trap as any writer who has spent a long time building a world and getting excited by the concepts – I love to talk about it! And I tend to talk about it on the page. ‘Oh, I have to mention. . .’

But how much backstory is enough? How do you decide?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

17 comments

  1. As a reader I’ve been analysing the books I like vs the ones I don’t finish. Almost all of the former have chunks of back story in them, it’s just that it is drip fed in instead of infodumped in an indigestible lump of “as you know Jack…”

    The classic example of the drip feed is Heinlein (I know Sarah will agree with me on this) and even in (especially in?) some of his less successful later works the feeding in of the back story is magnificent. I think Friday is the best example of the technique although Number of the Beast is pretty good too.

    The key, it seems to me, is that you need to have some dramatic initial action hook that gets us wanting to know more about the world and the characters. Once the characters have survived the initial action you can take some time to describe the oddities of the world because now we want to know why the characters got into the initial action sequence

    1. I agree. Just enough at the right time. One problem I ran into was that I could not describe the initial action sequence of my book, Calvanni, without using the titles that denote the social position on that world. They were all unique to that world & really slowed down some readers. Sometimes I think taking the advice to be inventive has done more damange to my career that anything else!

  2. I’m interested to know if you draw a distinction between backstory and background. I just got told to put in more backstory in the first scene on one of my POV characters, and my reviewer wanted that in order to know right away what my character wanted. She wanted a little more of his personal history and how he had wound up where he was. I would contrast that with background (and, apologies if I’ve got my terminology wrong), which I’ve always thought of as the world-building aspects, including its history, what it looks like, general atmospherics, etc.

    My reviewer noted that I had this POV character’s personal backstory later in the story. She wanted it earlier to sharpen the dramatic focus and to make the reader care more about him. So, I gather that’s one reason for early backstory.

    As a reader I agree with masgramandou’s observation that background gets revealed in a slower fashion and on an “as necessary” basis. As a fan, however, of the very painterly Dorothy Dunnett, I think a good description of a setting can transport you better than a holodeck.

  3. Chris: “Many of my worlds, particularly the fantasy ones, have lots of new concepts and terms that need to be explained from the beginning for the story to make sense.” [I’d italicize this if I could]

    I’m more of a science fiction reader, but I do accept that there will be words and concepts that I eventually pick up on as the story develops. Too much defining at the beginning can get dull. We genre readers accept the wait in reasonable amounts.

    1. Hi, Laura. I think backstory in the way of personal history is more useful in the early part than general background on the world. I would still be cautious though. Do you have feedback from other readers or reviewers? I would be good to get more than one take on that.

      I’m not sure if there is a distinction in terms between backstory and background, or whether its just down to the way each writer thinks. I took backstory to be a broad term that took in both character and world background and setting.

      Thanks for the thoughts on introducing terms. I did try hard to limit my explainations in the intro. I think that many non-SFF readers bought my novel, which made it a harder ask for them.

  4. The readers’ expectations of the Fantasy genre are different than other genres. You really need to opinion of several fantasy readers to know if you’ve got it right.

    Fantasy needs a strong grounding in the world, in the new rules. Tech level, Magic or not, government, dragons and elves or DIY non-humans and so forth. Once the reader knows they’re in a medieval level monarchy with magic, and no one really believes there are still Dragons in the far north, they are perfectly happy to get into the story. It’s when you’ve left this to their imagination, and what they imagine doesn’t fit with later descriptions, that you’ll have problems.

    But you have to work it into the story. Your use of “defining” worries me. Probably needlessly, in your case, but I hate to leave a wrong impression for the less experienced writers. I do not object to an up front (brief) glossary, but data dumps in the first chapter will lose a lot of readers.

    1. Hi, Pam. Ah – using ‘defining’ probably is the engineer in me coming out. Especially as I just come out of three days of intensive training in a process modelling package:) Don’t worry, I think I was a little more subtle that that.

      Thanks for your perspective. I probably havn’t got it too far wrong, it just stresses me out.

      1. Yeah. We all stress. Sometimes I think the more we know, the more we think we’ve got something wrong. Just find some fantasy readers and see if they think there’s too much or too little grounding at the start. You need to try to satisfy the expectations of the sort of reader that is likely to buy your book. Not people who read other sorts of books.

  5. If you feed in information about your world *as the character notices things* you can avoid indigestible lumps of backstory. E.g. “Jimjim heard the yowl of a rich lord’s panzerschrier, and before the pointed, furry ears were even in view he had faded back into the crowd and toward a narrow alley where the glow-lamps were dim, their spells weakening from neglect.”
    So, we have a world with magic, rich lords, crowds, mysterious creatures, alleys and what someone named Jimjim thinks needs to be done about them, instead of five paragraphs of how the panzerschriers were created from dustbunnies and leftover meatloaf during the Age of Burnt Toast to serve as tulip guardians.

  6. I cheated and had a character go to an archive, where she saw a rare manuscript about the founding of the world. But the scene comes in a mid-book, breathing space chapter where she’s learning about her new home’s history. By that point, readers already know a little of the backstory from encounters and characters’ asides, and this fills in more.

    1. I do think Chris is correct about reader preferences. My two reader friends wanted to know more about passing references to labor shortages on Mars and floods in California. I only made those references for flavor and to give depth to my world. There was no way I was going to make up, much less add, more to satisfy their curiosity. There was no there, there. I decided to just be glad they were intrigued.

      1. I suspect it boils down to what the role of the backstory is. If it is just for flavor, then a dab here and swipe there probably does the trick for a lot of readers. But if it becomes important later in the book or the series, then a larger serving may be needed. As Chris pointed out, fantasy readers may want a goodly portion, where sci-fi can get along with a bit more hand-wavium and allusion.

        1. Agreed. I think of it as the difference between background (flavor, atmosphere, world-building) and backstory, which is history pertinent to your plot.

          1. All of this discussion has me thinking it’s more important than ever to get a wide range of reader input. There’s nothing worse than following a request for more backstory only to find the revised manuscript is even heavier going for other readers. Sigh.

            1. I have to smile at that one. For me, the same person who wanted more backstory up front wanted me to cut a lot because it’s long. I made about half the cuts she suggested.

              I think it was Sarah Hoyt who said something to the effect that only if several readers tell you the same thing should you worry about it. There’s also a Rusch post about how everything can be improved always and forever, and you have to make the final call as to whether it’s what you want, not what your crit group says.

              1. “There’s also a Rusch post about how everything can be improved always and forever, and you have to make the final call as to whether it’s what you want, not what your crit group says.”

                Or – to put it in engineering terms: shipping(publishing) is a critical feature

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