filed under A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, How To Write A Book.

I’ve been reading quite a few opening chapters of manuscripts lately and one thing that seems to come up a lot is the ability to manage the actual story, versus backstory. As writers, we all want to welcome the reader into our book. The best way to do this is to immerse the reader in a story. Backstory can get in the way of this. Which begs the question: how to deal with backstory and why is it such a problem?

What is Backstory?

Let’s start at the beginning. Backstory is anything that isn’t part of the actual scene that is happening on the page right now. In the opening scene in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, Evie and her sister Viola are talking about a book that Evie’s reading. Then their neighbour Charlie comes to visit and they all go for a walk along the river. That’s what’s happening in the scene on the page.

But then, on page 7, there are two paragraphs which fill the reader in on who Charlie is, and what his relationship has been like wth Evie since childhood. None of that is happening in the scene on the page; it’s all happened in the past, So that’s backstory.

How to Deal With Backstory in a Novel

What Backstory is Good For

Backstory can provide a change of pace. It can provide a moment of respite for the reader when the tension has been driven to its highest point. If we keep the tension high all the time, it can be too much. We need a lull, a moment to regain our breath. That’s when backstory can work well.

Backstory can also fill in important information about relationships between characters and about each character’s past. In the  backstory in my book that I’ve mentioned above, I say that, when they were children, “having Charlie next door filled Evie’s days with fun and adventure, especially as Charlie did anything Evie dared him to do.”

Charlie and Evie have feelings for one another, although Evie isn’t quite sure what her feelings are, and her feelings are complicated by her history and long friendship wth Charlie. I needed the reader to quickly get a sense of their long-standing friendship and there are two ways I could have done this. I could have had a whole scene of flashback showing something that Charlie and Evie used to do when they were younger, and showing how much fun they had together. Or, I could fill the reader in on the outlines of their relationship by using backstory, which is what I chose to do. Why?

Well, I’ll answer that in just a moment. First, let’s look at some of the problems with backstory.

Why You Should Beware of Backstory

The trouble with backstory is that it gets in the way. The reader is just starting to be drawn into a scene when they’re abruptly jerked out of the scene and cast back into some detail of what the character did or thought or felt in the past, or some detail about the character’s relationship with another character.

Jerking the reader out of the story is disruptive. Because then they have to settle back in again. This takes time. We want the reader to experience the “waking dream”, which is John Gardner’s term for the state a reader should be in when consumed by a novel, transported to another world, living another world while actually remaining on the couch. Backstory is the single biggest disruption to the waking dream state.

Backstory is the single biggest disruption to the waking dream state.

Backstory in the Beginning of a Book

Welcoming the reader into the story and laying the foundation for the waking dream—plumping up the pillows and smoothing out the duvet if you will—are most important at the beginning of the book. If the reader can’t settle, if there are lumps under the mattress and the pillow is the wrong height, then the reader is going to close the covers of the book. Backstory is one of the lumps under the mattress.

So that’s why, in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, I chose to give the information about Evie and Charlie in two paragraphs, rather than as a full scene in flashback. We didn’t need a scene. Narrative summary, or telling, works better in this case to quickly convey the information.

It’s also why I waited until page 7 before I did so. It means there are several pages before the backstory where Evie and Charlie are on the page in the scene talking to one another, interacting, showing themselves and their relationship to the reader, drawing the reader in to the waking dream. Then, just to fill in any gaps, I quickly divert to a moment of backstory. Just as quickly, as soon as I’ve imparted only exactly what the reader needs to know right then and there, I leave the backstory and dive straight back into the scene.

Drip Feed the Backstory: 4 Tips

  1. The key with backstory is only ever give exactly as much as you need. Never give a word more than necessary.
  2. What I did, especially with the first few chapters of my book, was to go over every line of backstory and tighten it as much as I could. I took out every single word of backstory that wasn’t needed.
  3. Another way to do this is to take out every single piece of backstory from your story. Then add it back in, line by line, only putting back in the lines that are essential.
  4. Always ask yourself: does the reader need to know this right now? If not, then leave it out. Trust the reader. They are as smart as the writer, or often smarter!

So, if you’re having the backstory blues, I hope this helps. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions!

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16 Responses to “How to Welcome the Reader Into the Story: Beware Backstory”

  1. Kali

    Oh boy, now I know what to expect next week. I’ve looked through my opening chapter and can’t believe how backstory-laden it is. This advice is gold!

    • Natasha Lester

      Ha! It definitely wasn’t directed at you. I’ve been reading lots of manuscript openings because I had my first face to face mentoring group this week, plus I’ve been doing a few private sessions and it just struck me as being something that many people, including myself, struggle with. Glad it was useful.

  2. Alyssa Mackay

    Ditto! As soon as I read the opening lines of your blog post, actually, let’s say the title of your blog post, I thought ‘uh oh!’ Excellent advice and it makes so much sense, but quite difficult to put into practice!

    • Natasha Lester

      It’s so hard to do! I’m as guilty of it as anybody. It’s just because we really do want the reader to know what’s going on that sometimes we forget they don’t need to know everything all at once. Good luck with it!

  3. Ann

    I am just starting to write my first book, I have been an avid reader of romance novels for a very long time and have decided to try and write one myself. My plan is to write a series of books and I want to introduce the characters for the other books in the first book. So I guess my question is should I still try to limit the backstory? The reader will have to know something about the other characters in order to be interested in reading their story in the up coming books right?

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Ann, thanks for the question. You should only introduce them if they are naturally a part of the story, or if you can work out a way to get them into the story that doesn’t seem awkward. Often writers might have minor characters in a first book who appear in some scenes and then give those minor characters their own book next in the series. This works fine so long as those characters need to be in those scenes and are integrated into the story. I hope that helps.

    • Natasha Lester

      It’s one of those things that you don’t really think about until somebody points it out. It took me a long time to understand how to handle it but I think I’m slowly getting better at it! Good luck with it.

  4. Claire

    I start in the here and now but the protagonist is reflecting back on her life so the backstory naturally comes in after the first scene of where she is now, and then goes forward from there. Is that still a problem in the first chapter do you think? Thanks.

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Claire, having a protagonist reflecting back on their life so early in the piece is risky, but that’s not to say it can’t be done. You just need to make sure that you’ve really bedded her down in the present and given the reader a reason to like her and be interested in her in the present before you move on to the past. I hope that helps.

  5. Rachael Keene

    What if you use a very brief, cryptic flashback backstory as your Prologue? Through scene, not summary. Is this too early/too much?

    • Natasha Lester

      It depends how brief and, as always, there are exceptions to all the rules. I would say that less than 2 pages is a bit short and might feel more like a vignette than a scene. It also depends how cryptic. It needs to still draw the reader in and raise questions rather than confusing them. I’m not sure if I’ve helped at all with that!

      • Rachael Keene

        You have helped, thank you! I think mine’s a bit hit and miss at the moment, so food for thought.


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