In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Even when you tell your story in a straightforward manner, you’ll discover you can’t escape at least some backstory. In a very real sense, every life is in medias res. If you introduce a forty-year-old man as your main character on page one of your novel, and if the action begins as the result of some brand new person or situation’s exploding onto the stage of this fellow’s life, you’ll still have to deal with the first forty years of the guy’s life at some point. […] The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest.
Backstory should play some kind of role in your fiction writing.
It is absolutely important to have an aspect of backstory in your fiction, even in the most fast-moving of thrillers. It doesn’t really matter what kind of genre you write in at the end of the day. Even if you’re writing a real-time story told in first person that moves at crackerjack speed, there still needs to be a little bit of backstory somewhere.
Because Stephen King is right in that every character in your story has a history of some kind. That character didn’t just suddenly land on Planet Earth in Chapter 1. Stuff happened to him or her. Big stuff and small stuff. Huge milestones and tiny moments that left impacts.
And also, a hell of a lot that is in no way interesting at all.
As I’ve discussed this week, backstory is such a tricky beast because it needs to be there in your work in some regard, but to overdo backstory might alienate many of your readers.
Sometimes backstory is so difficult to integrate you might be inclined to just skip it altogether. But don’t. It does need to be there in a small capacity.
Just always keep in mind that most backstory is not interesting.
Keeping this in mind has definitely helped me in terms of what backstories of my characters I include in my recent novels and what backstories I don’t.
My novel Monster Movie, which got me a literary agent in 2017 and is currently on submission to editors, had so much more backstory in its first few drafts. I stopped the story cold at times to explain why my main character Max was so passionate about filmmaking, and how his parents met, and what his dog Buster meant to him growing up. I included long passages of how he went to the movies with his dad. I included a huge flashback scene of how he discovered the films of his new favorite movie director on a dark and stormy night.
There was a lot of great writing in these moments, but as I continued revising the book for many months after I signed with my agent, I recognized that most of the backstory I included in the first few drafts of the novel needed to go. Not because it wasn’t relevant to the story I was telling. And not because the writing on my part was anything less than solid.
Most of it needed to go eventually… because it just wasn’t very interesting.
To stop your story cold for backstory, you have to give us details that offer something unique. A fascinating image, perhaps. A quick anecdote about the protagonist that gives us deeper insight into him or her. Once the urgency of the current narrative is lost, there needs to be a very good reason for that backstory, and if there’s isn’t, if you’re just loading up your chapter with various details of backstory you think the reader would like to know, you might be shooting yourself in the foot.
Especially when that backstory comes early in the narrative.
Especially when it’s page seven and you’ve unloaded huge block paragraphs of backstory upon your readers, most of whom will be annoyed by this.
You might not know what backstory is interesting or not, and that’s okay.
Sometimes I find a particular bit of backstory about one of my characters fascinating, and it takes my agent and a handful of beta readers to calmly let me know that backstory isn’t fascinating at all but is in fact boring and brings the quality of the chapter down with its absurdness.
Okay, so this might not happen all the time, but something you should think about if you struggle with backstory is telling any beta readers who take a look at your book to keep an eye out for it. Tell them to make a note where backstory doesn’t add much to the book, where backstory takes away from the urgency of the narrative.
Where backstory is just not interesting. Because, sadly, most backstory of someone’s life isn’t interesting. Especially in a work of fiction.
So stick to Stephen King’s advice, for sure: present the bits and pieces of your characters’ backstory that will hold a reader’s interest, and throw away the rest.
Your fiction writing will be better in the long run!