27 October 2009

Backstory: A Kiss of Death?

Believe it or not, today's post has nothing to do with back injuries. The timing is nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. :0)

As I mentioned last week, I'm currently in a re-editing/re-writing process on an old manuscript. It started with just line edits and has grown into something more. I'm definitely overwhelmed. You see, the nature of my novel lends itself to a lot of backstory for a number of reasons. And recently I've read that backstory at the beginning of a novel is a "no no". It's taken a while for me to even consider changing it, from the moment I first felt that sinking feeling in my gut until yesterday when I finally took a deep breath and plunged in. Right now there's so much work to do I can't see straight. It's more of a "feel it out" method than an actual plan of attack.

I'm all for having a unique book or breaking a rule so well that it doesn't matter. Some of my favorite authors use large amounts of backstory in their work. Just the other day I picked up a novel by a very prolific Christian author (this just happened to be that person's 100th book) to find a very lengthy prologue full of backstory. So I know it can be done. The question is whether I as an unknown can get away with it so well that an agent will jump to sign me--and if my story itself can hold the amount of backstory it has in the form that I've written it. I suspect I have too much in one place. I decided last night to give re-writing a try, to see what happens when I step outside of that box and try something different just in case the spark of genius lies in that edition. Personally, I like backstory. And I like it in the beginning of a book. But I don't like it so much that I'm not willing to try what the experts say.

So this week is a time of exploration for me. I've committed to trying it out and seeing what happens.

My question to you is this: what do you think about backstory? Do you like to read it? Write it? Do you think it's a kiss of death to have it in the first few chapters of a novel?

Thursday we'll see what some of the experts have to say about it.

***Image found on Google Images***


  1. I wish I knew enough to help give you advice...however as a reader of many books, I personally like the backstory and some of my favorite books open with it. :) I am excited for you as you push thru the hard work and decisions...and I am sure it will pay off for you. :)

  2. Backstory is a tricky thing to handle well. and I think every story begs to be handled differently depending on what is happening and why. I think the only way to be sure that your are handling the backstory well is to give the book to a good writer to read and review. If they are honest they will let you know where they were bored or skipping over parts just to get back to the action. as scary as that kind of honesty is, I would rather hear it from my readers than an agent :)

    All the best with it. I too am in editing hell :)

  3. There are many of us "in editing hell" right now. I agree with Tabitha about backstory being tricky. And I'm not sure I'm qualified to tell you whether it's okay. I, too, think having readers who can be honest with you is your best bet.

    Thank you for your kind comment on my blog. I needed that little pick-me-up from my blogging buddies!

  4. I love backstory but it's tricky, tricky, tricky to manage. I feel most of the time writers spend so much time "world building" they loose sight of the main plot and its pace. Writing a backstory is a sound idea for flushing out details that then can be interwoven throughout the story.

    A big chunk of backstory before the real thrust of the novel even begins can be a lot to swallow.

    Have fun exploring. :-)

  5. I'm okay with it in moderation. How about including it, but not within the first few pages...action first, then backstory? Would that work? If not...like Fleetwood Mac sings, "Go Your Own Way..." :D
    ~ Wendy

  6. I'd agree w/ the others. It's kind of like salt -- a little bit sprinkled in can fill out the dish. Too much, and it's ruined.

  7. I think some back story is necessary and okay, but it's best to leave it out of the first chapter. I'm having a hard time with this issue myself.

  8. My expertise is limited. As a reader I like backstory, but not huge chucks. Spacing it and giving a little here and there keeps me involved.

    Consulting with beta readers sounds like a great tool for this. Even a professional critique may not hurt.

    Praying it goes well Kristen!

  9. Editors don't usually go for it. I try to incorporate back story through dialogue.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. You're so welcome, Heather!

    Good luck to all of you who are with me in that not fun place of editing. I go back and forth from being excited to wanting to run my head into the wall. May it be a good experience--and may there be sleep--for all of us!

    I agree, Rebecca! It's just that the world we create is so interesting! If only the reader could know how interesting it really is... and that's where the backstory dump begins. Like Tamika says, it gets a bit much there.

    Elizabeth-- thank you for the idea! I'm going to see how that turns out!

    Susan--good luck! We can wrestle this out together!

    Wendy, I think it will. I now have a new first chapter, complete with an argument as the opening scene. Hopefully it's as fiery as I think it is! I'm going to go back pound more action, active verbs, etc out of that baby...

    Thanks, Bina, Tamika--everyone! I really appreciate everyone's input!

    That's a great analogy, Tess!

  11. I definitely think you're on track with rewriting. As newbies, we have to follow the rules. And the current reader doesn't like the backstory to slow down the opening (I know I don't!). What a famous author can do, we can't. Once we are our hundredth book then we might have the liberty to write outside the box! Have fun doing the rewriting! Your story WILL be better for it!

  12. As a reader, I don't mind backstory. But I don't like it in big doses and I don't enjoy it if it's not written in a creative way. I use backstory a lot in my books but I try to keep it to a minimum or not at all in the first few chapters and then, when I feel the reader has a pretty good sense of my character, then I'll sneak in some backstory.

    I have this challenge with my NaNo manuscript. It requires a lot of backstory and I'd much rather do it in bits and pieces than starting at the beginning of the story (back in this girls childhood) and going from there. So, I'm holding off until Chapter 3 and then really trying to give the story personality.

  13. I enjoy backstory. I like how it paints a picture that helps me better understand the world and the characters in that world. I don't want to read 10 chapters of how the world came into being (unless I'm reading Tolkien which, of course, doesn't count), but I do like a little glimpse into the past.

  14. Now that I've learned about writing, I get bored with backstory.
    But before I started writing, I never even noticed it. I think your smart to explore your options though. Odds are the backstory is repeated later in the book, but through dialogue and internal narrative. You might not even need it. :-)
    Have fun exploring!

  15. I really enjoy backstory, actually. I'm more of an inquisitive reader than a needs-action-right-now reader - I like to know where I am, what's going on, how the character got to where she is, etc. Maybe the reason backstory is unpopular is because people feel that it's too chunky and can get kind of slow and monotonous? What about interspersing the backstory with dialogue? You can feed readers the tidbits you think they should know while continuing the flow. I'm learning all about this myself. Good luck with your writing!!

  16. I don't mind backstory at all, in fact, one of my favorite writers also uses it. You may want to poll a few agents to get their opinions.I think it's very admirable that you're willing to re-write while you're exploring your options! Good for you! BTW - I love your new background! :)

  17. As a reader, I don't mind a bit (a wee bit) of backstory in the beginning, but I agree with the comments above. Newbie writers have to be extra cautious about following rules--and backstory is one that agents seem especially attuned to.

    Hang in there, Kristen. Trying new things with writing is SO important, but sometimes overwhelms me! (Okay, make that 'often'. Heh.)

  18. I empathize with your rewriting challenge; I have an old ms on the desktop right now, too. I'm working my way through it to change the POV!

    Every writing professional I've heard from or read has said backstory is deadly, especially near the beginning. Revealing necessary bits of information throughout the story on a "need to know" basis is a better plan. I think the emphasis was on "necessary" bits, too -- that what we as authors sometimes think is important backstory often isn't. Best of luck with it!

  19. I'm just going to say it. Back story gets on my nerves. When I start reading a book, I need to care about what's happening right now, not about what happened last year. Of course, I'll need to know why what's happening right now is important, but that's what dabbling backstory in is for. Good luck!

  20. I'm bad for slapping in long sections of backstory in my first drafts, but honestly, when I'm reading published works, long expositions of backstory send me onto the next book right away. I haven't the patience for it. I much prefer it sprinkled within dialogue tags in the most concise form possible. I want the current action to keep going full steam ahead in reading.

  21. I personally struggled with this in the last book I wrote. The woman was filled with grief over her husband's death and he still sort of controlled her so I kept throwing some in to show his influence on her and then gradually backed off as she healed. Probably that book will never come to be published but I found now way around it to get that special effect. The one I'm doing now is straightforward action. Following all the rules. So we shall see!

  22. I am so excited right now because I just read Rachelle's post for today, which was all about backstory. Sounds silly, but it feels a bit like confirmation for me. What great timing!

    I'm trying to find a way to follow all the rules and still be me--and true to my story. I'm definitely willing to pay my dues and do what needs to be done to get interest from someone in the industry... maybe when I have several novels on the shelves I'll be able to break a few more! :0)

    Thanks, Maria! I wanted to somehow use purple and orange together and this happpened. I think I like it... not really a flower person, but I LOVE bright colors!

  23. Hey Kristan, I too am pretty new so not really sure but I can tell you, one Canadian writer uses a lot of what I think is backstory. She paints the stage so clearly I feel like I'm watching a movie. She is very descriptive. Her books keep my interest because of it, although I have to admit I like the story plot. She builds the scenes. I want to learn how to do that. Is that backstory? Sarah

  24. Hey, Sarah--

    That's my bad--I should have prefaced what backstory was. It's more of a description of the character's past... like when you suddenly start talking about the past and what happened to influence the character. It's the story behind the story.

  25. I think perhaps its necessary in small doses. Don't you think? Not a word dump but small tid bits of what has been.

  26. I hate backstory dumps! I once read 25 pages of backstory from a successful author and although it was interesting, it pulled me from the story and I kept rewriting ways the author could have revealed the info little by little. I prefer as little backstory as possible and tightly woven into the story.

  27. Hi Kristen - Found your site through Rachelle's, but I know I've seen your name on other blogs. I can't believe I'm just now getting to your site! Anyway, you're a Georgian, like me, so I totally had a laugh at your post on her blog today.

    This is such a great post for me, because I have some backstory in my first chapter, and now, of course, I'm having major anxiety about it! I don't mind backstory, but maybe it IS a no-no? I'm going to read Rachelle's post from yesterday and see what she had to say.

    Love your blog! ~ Beth