Is Backstory Sinking Your Book?

Is Backstory Sinking Your Book?Backstory is often misunderstood, mostly because it has gained something of a bad reputation through misuse. It’s important you neither underestimate this crucial storytelling technique, nor allow it to overwhelm your main story.

Backstory, as its name implies, is intended to stay in back of the main story. It’s never the point of the story, and, when you dwell on it too much, you risk deviating too far from your plot and testing readers’ patience.

However, that doesn’t mean backstory isn’t important. In Ernest Hemingway’s analogy of a story as an iceberg that’s 9/10th underwater, the backstory comprises that underwater bulk that keeps your story floating. It contains the motivations, demons, successes, and ladder rungs that have led your character to the opening of your story.

3 Tips for Successful Backstory

The classic western High Noon is a masterpiece of effective backstory, in which a rich and complex backstory is used to further the plot without ever overwhelming it.

A viewing of High Noon teaches us to:

1. Give Characters a Backstory to Start With

Every character in this movie has an intricate connection with the main character and the past events that have brought the villain back to wreak vengeance.

Cast of High Noon

2. Don’t Explicitly Share Your Backstory

Sometimes the most effective backstories are those that are hinted at rather told outright. We’re never told exactly what happened between protagonist Will Kane and the half dozen other main characters.

High Noon Gary Cooper

3. Carefully Disseminate Your Backstory

We learn just what we need to know when we need to know it. You’ll find no lengthy flashback scenes here.

Ladies of High Noon

And the effect is a deepening of characterization that never slows the plot.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How important is backstory in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great point. Key to backstory is to use what you need ot create a great tale, but not to hit the reader over the head or swamp him.

  2. Exactly. If your backstory is so large it’s overwhelming everything else, you probably need to consider opening your story earlier in the character’s life.

  3. This is awesome! Thanks, K.M.

    P.S. I just checked out your dialogue post, too – I sooooo needed that!! Oh so helpful! 🙂

  4. Glad they hit the spot!

  5. Not only that but it can seriously overwhelm you the writer if you are writing a fantasy novel and start trying to flesh out the backstory and storyworld too much.

  6. I actually find it takes the pressure off, as I’m writing, if I allow myself to spin the backstory whenever I feel like it. It helps me center myself in the story and the characters. Then, I go back and edit out the unnecessary stuff later.

  7. Great post – I LOVE High Noon, great example.

  8. I grew up as a big fan of classic westerns, but High Noon never made my list of favorites. It wasn’t until I viewed it again recently that I realized what a fabulous bit of storytelling it really is.

  9. I find I only write some of the back story while I’m preparing. After all, I have to know who this person is! But other little things I discover along the way. Sometimes, those things create ripples, and I have to/get to go back and knit a detail into the earlier scenes, usually just a hint or a line of dialog.

  10. I usually create huge, complex backstories for the main characters, in the early stages of outlining. Most of the backstory never makes it into the story proper, but it informs so many of the decisions I make about the characters.

  11. Great point… part of the backstory for my current story got so big I think it turned into its own story. 🙂 Which was fun – and definitely helped me figure out where my current story was heading. 🙂

  12. It’s always fun when backstory takes you unexpected places. I’ve had that happen on almost every book I’ve written.

    • Thanks for that insight. My interesting little story had grown into three major epics and I was panicking about losing some key points. I feel more relaxed about accepting much of the material as the medium which supports the story

  13. Sounds interesting.

  14. ROBERT EASTERBROOK says:

    Still experimenting … but, I think I’ve used it wisely. One of my stories I’ve written provides backstory at the end of the first book in the saga – I did this because I felt it made sense to put it there. Works as a kind of hook for the second book. Otherwise, I might have had to write several more stories before I get to book 2. Oh, wait; I’m a writer, I could’a done that. But thinking about it, these books would have been like Deuteronomy and Leviticus: Eleh ha-devarim. Perhaps not a project for 2018. In my book The Sleeper Awakens, young Stephen has more flashbacks than he does hot dinners. That’s because Stephen has Kleine-Levin syndrome, a.k.a. Sleeping beauty syndrome. He lives most of his life in a dreamworld, so his backstory, in a sense, is the whole story, but I’ve written it in such away that the reader doesn’t realise this until … later. In my latest creation, The Fall of Corrigan, his backstory is laid out – not in its entirety – in the first chapter come prologue, because I felt the story needed this introduction to Corrigan early. After I finish editing it and give a read through, I might decide otherwise.

  15. Adrienne Nesiba says:

    I think backstory is very important, so that you know your characters and your setting. Like they say, we all have a past 😉

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