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Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Backstory is The Bomb

You hear it from agents, you hear it from editors: Cut the backstory. Cut, cut, cut! And okay, that might be true for the first fifty pages of your manuscript, or most certainly for the first twenty-five, and here’s why: We want to bring the readers into the midst of our stories and get them immediately involved. We don’t want them watching from the sidelines as we meander around looking for what our stories actually are.

But here’s the thing. Just because we don’t want that backstory up front, doesn’t mean we don’t need it at all. It doesn’t mean that we can vaguely imagine a few scenarios of what could have been the history of our characters. We have to know. And for that, in most cases, we have to write it. We really have to nail it down, and for each character, not just our main ones.

I’m finding more and more when I read a great book, this is what I love about it. I can feel each character’s history, even if it isn’t spelled out before me. I’m still learning on how to make this happen, but now I think that the less screen time you want a character to have, the more you need to know their backstory. Why? Because they have very few words and scenes to convey their worldview. And it’s not that we need to know their entire worldview, but we at least have to sense what kind of person they are. We need to *get* every single character, otherwise, why have them in the book at all?

There’s an ongoing discussion about parents in YA. Many editors don’t want a lot of scene time with the parents because teens may not be as drawn to reading about them. Some people suggest that killing the parents off, or removing them completely from the picture somehow can be lazy writing. I don’t have a fixed opinion on those things either way, but I will say this: if you have a good handle on the parents’ backstory—if you know exactly how they’ve spent their lives, what their high school existence was like, why they have the ticks they do—that can come across and be meaningful to your plot without actually seeing these things play out in scenes.

My biggest problem lately in my NaNoWriMo manuscript has been with the parents. I kept feeling the need to bring them into the story more and more, because their story really does affect the plot. But what I’m beginning to see is that I’m really just bumbling around with them and still trying to find out their story for myself. The more background I can find out about them, the less I actually have to show in the foreground. But it has to be done really well and exactly to keep them concise. And at this stage it can take a lot of bumbling to get to the stuff I need!

So this is the lesson I’ve been learning this last week: don’t hate the backstory. Enjoy exploring it. Write plenty of it down, and then convey weeks or months or years of a character’s experience in one simple sentence of dialogue. It really is an art, but an art that I’m excited to keep learning!


  1. What I love about a lot of authors is that just because we don't know ALL of the backstory, doesn't mean it isn't there. Like Cassie Clare & JK Rowling (for very few examples). There is so much more to their characters lives that we don't get to read about but come up in later Q & A's that make for fun tidbits of info. However, you have to include enough to make the reader want to ASK the right questions. Writing is amazing. I love reading about your personal processes and progresses!

    Ashlie @ Bookish Novelties

  2. This is a terrific post, Denise. I'm conflicted about the issue myself. I may have inserted too much in novel 1 and too little in novel 2 - and finding the balance is difficult. Parents are especially tricky, if offstage. Nice discussion!

  3. Great post. I agree with you that it is an art. Dropping little bits of backstory in like breadcrumbs along the way. :) I'm still learning as well.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  4. I totally agree with you. I think if hints to a character's history have been set up properly, readers are eager to discover the back story when it comes. Sometimes we get so hung up on "the rules" that we lose sight of what our stories really need.