Construction Zone: Dealing with Back Story

I’ll admit – I skim a lot of back story (backstory? back-story?) when I’m reading. It’s not that I don’t want to know what happened earlier, or why characters are acting/doing/saying what they are, but honestly, I just get bored reading more than a page or so of it at a time. I want action! Dialogue! Emotional angst interrupted by…someone or something! That probably says far more about my attention span than about any author’s writing in particular.

When I’m writing, I’m constantly struggling with how much back story to include where, and how. I like introspection for revealing back story when it doesn’t work embedded in the action or dialogue, and while I try to keep it to a minimum, I worry that I’m going on for too long, that my readers will get bored, and start skimming through it. I honestly can’t gauge whether that will happen or not, and I don’t think anyone can – because every reader is different. Some have a higher “tolerance” and/or desire for back story than others.

Then I go too far the other way, and try to work back story into every little bit of action/dialogue I can without it sounding forced…but inevitably, there’s just no way to include enough without a ’bout of introspection again to even things out. Add to that the need for some transitions along the timeline that provide perfect introspective “breaks”, along with the fact that sometimes back story can be a great device for allowing the reader to “rest” in between particularly active/emotional scenes, and it becomes one big balancing act.

I think every writer probably has to develop their own “recipe” for how much back story to include where. It’s like salt, sometimes you need more, sometimes less. If used incorrectly, it can ruin the whole “dish”. But without it, the flavor will never be as bright as it should.

How do you deal with back story? Is it something you just know “instinctively” when to add more or less, or do you have to take care not to use too much or too little? Do you like to read introspective or expositional back story, or do you skim after a certain point?

16 comments on “Construction Zone: Dealing with Back Story

  1. Sherrinda

    Backstory is difficult. I have some in my WIP. I’ve tried to sprinkle it around, but I was confusing some readers by leaving too much out! lol Imagine! I do have some dumping though and need to learn to sprinkle better. 🙂

  2. Samantha Hunter

    It was interesting to read this, and Sherrinda’s comment, because I have read several contest entries, etc where the writers didn’t have enough backstory.

    You can’t have information dumps, of course, but I find people generally need more backstory up front than they realize, otherwise the story has no point of origin for the character. You aren’t grounded anywhere.

    I tend to mix backstory in with action going on, so you aren’t getting a huge chunk, though in some cases, you might.

    I think the only time I skim it is if it’s uninteresting, or it does go on too long, but I think it’s also more critical than most people believe, having been taught “jump right in to the story” — well, you do have to do that, you do need to jump in and keep things interesting, but you also need to deal with backstory at the same time, IMO.

    Love thinking through these things with you. 🙂


  3. Shannon O'Donnell

    Thankfully, Pb’s and chapter books don’t require much backstory, so it’s one problem I don’t have to worry much about. Phew! 🙂

  4. Jody Hedlund

    I think most modern readers are probably a lot like us–not wanting the back story dump. They like to piece the story together for themselves, without being given too much information. It’s more exciting that way. So, I agree, sprinkle it in like well-placed flavoring.

  5. Erica

    Backstory is difficult. I have the worst time with this (as you know *wink*) I have a hard time putting anything in, I need to get better at it and weave some in.

    I’m like you though, I skim it mostly after a while, unless the writer’s voice is really good, then I can read backstory ;o)

    Great post!

  6. Carolina Valdez Miller

    I think you need to have just enough backstory that it helps you to understand who the characters are, and perhaps a little more if it will impact your understanding of the plot as it develops. Otherwise, it’s probably unnecessary and will bore your readers. I think the days of Tolkien with long, drawn out histories are long past.

  7. Dolly

    I think like anything it depends on several things – genre, the kind of story it is, but most importantly how much I care about the characters. If I love the characters (that would mean that the story is well written), then I am not only tolerant but I want to know more about them. I must emphasise that it does depend on scope of the story, generally the characters I fall in love with are not in fast-paced thriller or any just plot driven novels and they are usually not deep enough to interest me in their life history. But say if I were to learn back story about Dumbledore or Sirius Black or Aragorn or Gandalf then yes please.

  8. Jamie D.

    It’s so hard to find that sweet spot, isn’t it? And I really do think that sometimes larger chunks need to come out together, just for explanation of current events, so to speak.

    But yeah, I’m usually guilty of not enough, rather than too much.

  9. Jamie D.

    Ooo…you hit on something I discovered in revisions for HPC, actually. I had jumped right into the action, and because I didn’t have any backstory, my heroine came off as “unlikable” and prickly, rather than being justified in her actions. I had to start just a little earlier to set up the scene, and that is working *far* better as far as character development goes.

    Needless to say, I’m examining my other opening scenes now – I think I’ve developed a habit of jumping in too soon, and need to set it up a bit to put the action in context…

  10. Jamie D.

    LOL – I can’t decide if you’re lucky, or just smart. Probably both!

  11. Jamie D.

    Indeed. The question is just “how much is too much?” Sadly, I don’t think there is one answer… which is not what the technical side of my brain wants to hear (the creative side is just fine with it). LOL

  12. Jamie D.

    Keep at it – you’ve already gotten a lot better. I think this has to do with voice too in some ways – some authors just wouldn’t be the same without more or less back story. Fascinating how it all works together…

  13. Jamie D.

    Ah, Tolkien. Such imagery…and so many skimmed pages. LOL

    I do think you still see a lot of that in literary fiction – but not so much in more commercial genres like we write. It’s actually kind of fun to read literary works on occasion just for the “humanity”…but only one at a time, and only sandwiched between two Harlequins, for me.

  14. Jamie D.

    Now that’s a very good point – the type of story really does have a lot to do with it, I’d agree. Although I tend to get “involved” with characters from big thriller novels just as much as a good romance (sometimes more so). Honestly, sometimes in the midst of a thriller I’m actually wishing for more back story to delve deeper into the character. But it is normally revealed slowly throughout, I just have to be more patient for it.

    Which kind of brings up another question – does that contribute to why we *read* the books we do? Most writers I know (myself included) are very eclectic readers…but a lot of readers who don’t write tend to stick with one or two genres. Would more thriller readers read literary novels if there wasn’t so much back story?  Or would more romance readers cross over to reading thrillers if the characters were explored more deeply? Obviously that’s not the only thing that would draw or push a reader away, but it might be one element…interesting.

  15. Eric J. Krause

    This is going to sound like a cop out answer, but it’s true. If backstory is presented in an interesting way, I’ll read it. It might not be integral to the plot, but I’ll eat it up if it’s a good read. If it’s dull, I’ll probably just skim it. If it’s important to the story, it might help, but if it’s just info dumped or something similar, I might not read it all.

    As for writing backstory, it’s tricky. I try my best to lightly sprinkle it in only where needed, and make it interesting when I do. I like to think I succeed, but that’s ultimately not for me to decide. If the readers find it well done, than I’ve done my job. If not, well…you get the picture.

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