That dreaded backstory…

So you heard it from an editor’s mouth in the prior post. A key to writing good fiction is to limit the backstory. So what does that mean, actually? Backstory is writing that gives the history of a character’s past. Generally speaking, it slows the story down. Example:

Genna felt the tip of the knife pressed to her throat, her own frantic pulse vibrating against the blade. It reminded her of the time her father taught her how to fish after her brother had gone off to war. How sharp the blade had been that gutted the salmon, how she’d hated seeing the animal’s life spilled out onto the parched wood of the dock.

Okey dokey. We’ve got a whiz bang first sentence and our readers are intrigued. The next bit might be interesting down the road, but right here is not the time to go into Genna’s history with her father. Those details need to be sprinkled throughout the novel and not dropped in ponderous chunks either. With backstory, it’s all about small doses. Less is usually more.

How do you feel about backstory? Generally, do you want to be dropped right into the action, or do you prefer to learn more about the character first? Comments get you entered in the drawing for an Amazon gift card this week.

Daydreaming

9 responses to this post.

  1. I love backstory! But I don’t generally care to have it in the middle of the action.

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  2. I’m one who thrives on back-story since I read so many different books in many different series, but I agree that it can easily detract if it’s in the wrong place.

    It’s one of the things that separates a great write from a not-so-great writer.

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  3. I love backstory, but not in the middle of an action scene. It makes it hard to get into the moment if you’re thinking about the past. Also, in answer to your second question, I like to get to know the characters first, then be dropped into action. I’ve found that, in general, I feel more connected to the characters that way.

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  4. Posted by Valri Western on February 27, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I love a backstory but not at the most exciting part! Like Karen said, it’s distracting! In my head, I’m saying , “not now!!!” There is a way, I’m sure, to flash back to that moment and describe what she felt with her father but let’s do the exciting moment in real time all at once without any distractions! I think the story “flows” along better that way!

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  5. Yes, a tantalizing tidbit is what we’re after at first. But how big of a chunk are we allowed later? The example you gave has a distracting quality.

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