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How Much Back Story Should I Include

July 27, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 27, 2014

A writer and I were talking about back story, about how much to include, how much is too much, what’s necessary to include in any one book when you’re working on a series. I addressed the basics of back story in another article, but we can always take another look and delve into some specifics.

Both the writer’s questions and my answer have been edited and reworked for this article.

________

For the background info about my antagonist, the details regarding who he was in the past, are you saying that I can add those details into the later books? And would it be simpler if I were to only give the information pertaining to this book, what applies to the main character’s current situation?

It’s such a catch-22. How much back story is enough, and what is too much? I’ve read book reviews where readers hated that the author never explained where characters had gotten their supernatural or paranormal powers, their gifts, their skills, or their hangups. They hadn’t answered questions the readers had about character backgrounds.

________

Answer

The truth is, readers want background information on the characters and they want a story to move forward.

Mixing in just the right amount of back story is indeed tough, especially when there’s so much good material to choose from. But, yes, usually you want to include only what has a bearing on the present story. Or just a pinch of detail to add flavor.

And the way back story is presented also influences how much you can use and when and how to use it.

Using a flashback can be better than characters simply explaining what happened in the past, but a flashback, by virtue of what it is, stops the forward motion of a story. You wouldn’t want a lot of flashbacks, because readers want the present story. And you don’t want a flashback too soon in a story because you want to get readers hooked into the story before showing them how present events came about.

On the other hand, readers are curious. They may well want to know about a character’s past, even a character other than the protagonist. Still, you have to decide whose story you’re telling. You can’t tell everything. If you’re writing an epic, with a sweep of centuries featuring many characters, getting in the back story of multiple characters may be necessary and beneficial. But if you’re writing a love story, readers don’t need to know the back story of the heroine’s best friend, even if she is tragically broken-hearted.

Balancing back story with the other fiction elements takes finessing, adding in some details and then taking them out to try something different to see which works better. It takes deciding whether flashback or thought or dialogue is the best way of presenting back story at any given point in a novel.

How back story fits in with other story events is also key; you want variety. So if you’ve had a lot of action scenes, a contemplative trip to the past may be just perfect for the next scene.

But you don’t want too much back story at any one time or as a large percentage of the overall number of pages because it interrupts the main story and because the effect of back story is cumulative—at some point readers may feel that you’re feeding them information or explaining everything, as if they can’t draw conclusions for themselves, or forcing them to live in the past when the action is all in the present.

You never want readers thinking or saying: Get on with the story already.

Beta readers can be great for pointing out the use of too much back story. Too much of anything, as a matter of fact. Use your betas to tell you when you’ve included too much of any element.

A bit of background detail is expected; too much can read like a lecture. You never want the reader wondering why you’re telling them so much or why you’ve been away from the main story for too long. You don’t want them thinking about the story as a story at all. You want them lost in the fictional events, caught up in the emotions and worries of the characters. Having to stop for a history lesson, even one featuring intriguing characters, can pull readers straight out of the fiction. It doesn’t have to, but it can.

Imagine sitting next to a history expert as you’re watching a war movie and you’re all caught up in the drama. As the battle explodes around you, you don’t want the expert to pause the movie to deliver a lecture on the history of the planes in the scene. You don’t want him explaining how one of the pilots got to be a pilot when he actually wanted to be a ballplayer because his brother, who did want to be a pilot, died saving him, and the young man just had to honor his brother’s dying wish and become a pilot himself. You don’t even want an explanation for the mysterious photo Lt. James Parker has affixed to his altimeter. You just want to see what happens with the battle.

Any of those bits of info may be important at some point, but maybe none are. And maybe they just aren’t important now. So writers must determine if the info is relevant and if it’s relevant at this particular point in the story.

There’s too much back story if readers notice it.

There’s too much if readers skip it.

There’s too much if it completely erases a story’s momentum.

There’s too much if there’s more back story than current story.

There’s too much if it interrupts multiple scenes or chapters in a row.

There’s too much if one character dwells only on the past.

There’s too much if every character has a flashback.

There’s too much back story if there’s more—or nearly as much—reporting of what has happened before the current time in the story than what is happening now. Back story should be a very small percentage of the narrative.

Back story is in the wrong place if it short-circuits a building momentum or interrupts an emotional or dramatic scene.

It’s in the wrong place if it’s placed back to back with other instances of back story.

If you can’t determine whether or not your manuscript has too much back story, get a couple of folks reading and then ask them about it.

___________________________________

Where to Include Back Story

The first instances of back story may flow easily and orient the reader, but by the final 100 pages or so, readers should be caught up in the current story, not the past.

Now, there are exceptions. A story in which past events integral to the present unfold throughout the present story—alongside present events, like a parallel story—needs those past events to play out until they culminate in some ending that affects the present story or until the climaxes of both stories collide. Thus you might find back story included in the final pages of some books. For most, however, back story serves its purposes before the big build toward the climax. At that point you want everything—plot, characters, and readers—pointing ahead and not back.

But again, we still don’t need too much. We don’t need every detail of the past, just what pertains to what’s happening in the characters’ present. Details to keep out of back story include excess setting description (unless vital) and dialogue or action that doesn’t directly impact the present story. That is, most of the time we don’t need every detail in a flashback. We just need to focus on the elements that directly affect the present. Or we need just the details that directly affect the present of a particular character.

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but refrain from putting back story before the current story. Get readers involved in current events before showing the causes that drove those events to take place. Hook readers into the present before taking a detour to the past.

___________________________________

I pointed out that a flashback could be the best method of showing back story, yet it’s not always the best. Sometimes all you need is a simple direct declaration—My father killed my mother when I was five—and that’s sufficient. Readers don’t need to see the murder as it played out. They don’t need to know where and when it happened—in the laundry room at 4:22 on a Tuesday—if that detail isn’t germane to the character’s life in the present. Readers don’t need a lot of detail and explanation. They just need enough to make sense of the present.

Sometimes the facts alone, stated baldly, create the effect you need in the present—shocking, surprising, overwhelming. Sometimes the facts stated baldly don’t even create an effect, but are simply necessary for information. If so, you don’t need to build up to the information. Just drop it into a passage and move on.

As for one character’s back story in particular, the amount of detail to include will depend on a number of factors. Ask a few questions.

How important is the character to the events of the story taking place in the present?

Do readers have to know what he’s done in the past to understand his present or his influence over current story events?

If readers do need to know a character’s past, will one example from the past be sufficient? Does the presentation of back story need to be in a flashback, in a full scene, or are a few sentences of dialogue sufficient?

Can you adequately show a character’s personality without having to refer to his past?

Do readers need to understand a character’s motivations—the reasons for his behavior—to understand that behavior?

For a character in a series, there are other questions as well.

Will the character feature in other books?

Which of his background details are key to understanding this story and how much can wait for other stories?

Once other stories are done, will it seem like a cheat if certain details were not included in one of the first stories?

How much of a character’s past is necessary as a setup to a future book in the series?

The reader knowing a character’s past profession may be enough. Knowing that he turned his back on his career or family or country may be enough. Knowing that he committed some horrific crime or betrayal be enough. Or these three facts presented together might be necessary. The three may be sufficient in themselves, or the readers may need more, specifics that fill in the gaps between them.

The character’s level of importance to the events of the current story may help you decide how much of his back story is important. In many stories, the back story is far less important than the writer expects it would be. Writers may need to know a character’s history intimately in order to write his present convincingly, but that doesn’t mean that back story has to show up on the page.

Characters can have complex backgrounds without readers having to know all the details.

Resist Explaining or Teaching 

You never want to sound as if you, the writer, are explaining to the reader. But explanations can easily creep into back story.

One character can explain to another character if doing so sounds natural and fits the scene and the characters. But blatantly explaining to the reader is something you won’t want to do. You don’t want readers aware of you at all. You are not a character in your fiction and you do not live in the fictional world of your characters, so anything that sounds like you is an intrusion, a voice from another world. (There are exceptions for narrators who speak directly to the reader. But again, this is a character or unidentified omniscient narrator, not the author.)

And you don’t want to overtly teach the reader. Everything should be of one piece, this adventure these characters are undertaking. The story—their story—shouldn’t stop in order for you to explain what happened in the past or to give a lesson. Your life, the real life of a living person, doesn’t stop; it keeps churning on, no matter what you do to try to slow it down. To help keep your stories and your characters feeling real, don’t stop their world and their lives. Yes, sometimes you do have to share the past because it points out motivation and causes for the events unfolding now; it establishes context; it supplies a framework for what you are building. But in fiction, the past is just a tool to spotlight the present. It shouldn’t overwhelm the present. It shouldn’t replace the present.

How Much Past

Different kinds of stories can handle more of the past than others can. If parallel stories are playing out—one chapter from the past and then one from the present—you will convey more details from the past. But if the major story is in the present, that’s where the accent needs to be. Give the characters some context by using past events, but don’t focus on the past. It’s the story in the now that interests readers—what’s going to happen next to these characters? Yes, it’s cool to see all that wild stuff that happened in the past, but what’s coming next? And how are the characters that readers care about going to get out of it or through it or over it?

The characters got out of their past dilemmas alive, so there’s no tension there. No conflict. No doubt or ambiguity. But what’s unfolding now and what’s ahead? Now that can get the reader’s heart pumping.

Flavor a story with the lightest of grace notes from a character’s past, but don’t pour on the back story. Back story is a spice that can add just exactly what a work of fiction needs, or it can ruin the taste of the whole story, overwhelming other elements until all that’s noticeable is the back story. Add it with a light hand. And don’t let it clump together in any one place.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Craft & Style, Writing Tips

19 Responses to “How Much Back Story Should I Include”

  1. I write fantasy and I struggled with this for my trilogy. I did include one chapter of backstory for my protagonist in the first book as it was essential for readers to understand why he was so reclusive. But for the other two in the series I managed to insert pertinent details with a sentence here or there as it pertained to the current behaviour or situation.

    Thanks you for a great overview.

    • My pleasure, Yvonne. Can you tell us how that chapter of back story went over with readers? And what made you change how you handled back story in the other two books?

      • In actual fact no one ever mentioned it to me. I’ll admit the original version was much longer than the one I ended up with. I murdered a lot of darlings. Haha.The woman who became my editor for the second and third books had no problems with it. She loved the book, which is why she agreed to edit the others.

        For those books we worked together to make sure the way I fit it into the story to bring readers who had not read Book One up to date would not put those that had off. I kept it brief, mostly a single sentence. I avoided using dialogue for that purpose feeling that would be too contrived.

        • I’m not surprised that no one mentioned anything about the way you used back story in that first book, but I’m always curious to know what people think.

          Dialogue can work for back story, but often it’s simply best to come out and say it rather than try to hide that it’s back story.
          ——-

          “You should see a psychiatrist for that distrust of redheads,” Chloe said. “Maybe he could figure out what’s wrong with you.”

          “No need. I already know.”

          She crossed her arms, tapped her foot.

          “My stepmother was a redhead. And so was her bratty daughter.” I grinned, trying to look innocent even though I was deadly serious. “And since I wasn’t allowed to retaliate when I was a kid, I’m making up for lost time.”

          ——–

          Thanks for giving us the extra info.

  2. I’m so glad you tackled this topic. I’ve heard everything from “prologues are never anything more than a back story dump, so don’t include them” to “include back story as long as it doesn’t disengage the reader from the immediate story,” which sometimes seems like another impossibility, but I appreciate your thorough take! Thank you!

    • You are welcome, Eleanore. Prologues can be back-story dumps, but they don’t have to be. But if they don’t engage readers, if they instead turn away readers, that’s not good. But anything can be made to work.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  3. Marisa says:

    This post could not have been more timely for me! Thank you for this–you may have just saved me from throwing my novel off a cliff. I’ve been struggling with this balance for a while, and the way you’ve laid things out here has really made it click.

  4. Terry Tyler says:

    Interesting and helpful article! My attitude is this: a story needs as much backstory as it needs. How you do it, though, is another matter. In the past, I’ve written small blocks of it in italics; it’s something that Jackie Collins does, that I’ve always loved – sort of a story within a story. Whereas I don’t think I was wrong to do them that way for those particular couple of books (and you will never please all readers; out of about 100 reviews for those two books there are about 5 that say it’s too much), I’ve now got better at weaving it into the story in a more subtle way at the right time. One thing I do disagree with is ‘the rules’ – I once broached the subject on a Facebook writers’ group, and many said that ‘you can’t have chunks of backstory’. To which I said that it worked for Jackie Collins, it’s the way you do it that matters, and if the backstory is as well written and interesting as the rest of the book, people generally don’t even notice that it is such, and just enjoy reading it.

    I shall pass this article on – I imagine it will be a help to many!

    • Terry, how you add back story is indeed the big question. There are quite a few options and some depend on the effect you want to create. I’m guessing that effect was key when you included your back story in italics, basically saying,note that this is something different.

      Chunks of back story? Yes, writers can try anything. And adding back story in this way would be a style decision, would actually create a certain feel for the story. And it may be the perfect choice for any one story or for a series featuring the same character. But anything that distracts the reader or bores her or has her thinking why do I need to know this information? is a problem. Is making such a style choice worth doing if readers might be ticked off? It is if it works and works well. Not so much if it doesn’t work.

      I tend to agree more with rules than disagree with them, at least in general. Because there’s usually a reason for a rule—because a rule has been proven to be the best choice again and again and again—I try to understand how a particular rule makes a section of writing clearer or more emphatic or more appealing. I try to get at the purposes behind rules. Knowing the effects rules can create—as well as knowing their limits and exceptions—allows writers to create in ways that serve both story and reader as well as help writers keep a story consistent. Rules are really great for maintaining consistency in writing projects.

      As you said, it’s the way that you do it—and I’ll add it’s where you include it—that makes all the difference.

      Thanks for passing the article on and for contributing to the discussion. Good points.

  5. Charlotte says:

    Hello,
    This was interesting but for right now I am writing a play and need help on punctuation with actions. I have the characters name the semicolon, space then the parentheses all action is in parentheses and italic if the action is at the first of the line do I capitalize and punctuate? I do have some actions in the middle of the dialog I only capitalize it if there is an ending mark before it if no ending mark I don’t capitalize but if the action is at the end of the dialog with no punctuation mark before it do I still end it with a punctuation mark?
    example Name: (action) dialog (action)
    Name: (Action). dialog (action).
    Another question is a incomplete sentence a sentence that makes me have a question of who or what this person is doing after I have read the sentence? What would be a good book for me to get to help me with punctuation of a play? I have the book writing a play the essential guide by Belona Greenwood but not what I need after all. I do thank you for your time and effort. Moppin

    • Moppin, I had to look this one up. There is not an awful lot out there on the Internet for play formatting. Some sources I checked with show the character names on the left, as you have in mind. Others show them centered above the dialogue, the same way screenplays are set up. It looks like there may be differences with formatting depending on which country’s format you are going with.

      For a British format, try this link to a PDF put together by the BBC.

      For a U.S. format, try this link and this page in particular. This page from Gordon State also looks helpful.

      As for you specific questions—

      I’ve seen action capitalized and not capitalized, with ending punctuation and without it in the examples I found. It seems that if the action is a full sentence, it starts with a capital letter and ends with a period (which is standard in almost all writing situations). If the action is a partial sentence, neither a capital letter nor an ending punctuation mark is required.

      From what I can tell, if the action is independent of the dialogue, use complete sentences for the action. If there are several actions, including actions for multiple characters, you would also write in complete sentences. If the action takes place with the dialogue, at the same time, use incomplete sentences. This will give the direction that the two—the dialogue and the action—are simultaneous. (This last is conjecture on my part. The samples I read all seem to show this same pattern, although I could find no rule about the issue.)

      A few options based on these assumptions (assume correct alignment, with character name at the left margin or in screenplay format, centered above the dialogue and with no colon)—

      #1 John: (JOHN lumbers through the park.)
      The zombies are on the loose! Run!

      #2 John: (yells)
      The zombies are on the loose. Run! Run! Run!
      (trips over a headstone)

      #3 John: (MICHAEL sneaks up on JOHN. JOHN whirls and slugs MICHAEL.)
      Oh, man. I didn’t know it was you.
      (helps MICHAEL up)
      Lemme help you there. Whoa, your jacket is torn.

      —————-
      These seem to be the basics. Is that what you’re looking for? I don’t know any particular book that can help with the format for plays. There are very few references to play format on the Internet.

      An incomplete sentence means grammatically incomplete. A complete sentence has a subject and a verb—someone or something is doing something. An incomplete sentence leaves out either or both the subject and the verb. An incomplete sentence in the context of a play would probably be a reference to those actions that are sentence fragments, phrases such as yells and trips over a headstone.

      I hope that helps.

  6. If you have a lot of backstory and you feel the reader has to know all of it to understand what’s going on in the current story, you may want to write a book just about past events, and sell the other story as the sequel.

    Just a thought…

  7. Darien says:

    Hi Beth, I was wondering if you had any separate suggestions for a first person book. If you’ve addressed it in the past, I’d love a link to that article.

    I can also add, if I was Charlotte, I would stick to screenplay rules for a play, there are a lot of softwares that can really help with the formatting too.

    • Darien, are you talking specifically about back story in a first-person story or first-person narration in general? I do have an article called The Curse of First-Person Narration. It may be what you have in mind, but if not, let me know.

      ———–

      Examples of the rules for formatting screenplays and different software for putting together a screenplay are available online, but there’s not much available for plays. As you say, following screenplay rules is a good start, though there are apparently a few differences for plays.

  8. Zen Yan says:

    Thank you for the article! I’m currently writing a hybrid science-fiction and fantasy series titled “Call Upon the Heavens” and I’m wondering how I can balance lore-building and story-building. Most speculative fiction chooses one or the other, and few manage to achieve a structurally closed plot with an open-world feel.

    Sorry if I posted in the wrong section. I couldn’t find any thread about lore-building, so I thought this thread would be most appropriate.

    P.S. “Call Upon the Heavens” will include satire on materialistic epistemology. However, my universe has intuitively supernatural elements, such as demons, spell-casters, technology powered by faith, and arcane technology, which may render dualist and idealist viewpoints too convincing. How can I criticize materialism while avoiding straw man and making each metaphysical viewpoint equally convincing, until a pivotal plot twist?

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