Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What would have happened if Tolkien crammed the entire contents of The Silmarillion into a prologue to The Lord of the Rings? Many Middle-earth fans find it hard enough to slog through The Silmarillion’s 500 pages of mythopoetic history; there’s no way most first-time readers would make it to the Shire, much less out of it, if all this backstory came at the beginning of the better-known trilogy. The Lord of the Rings is not without backstory, though. Context and family trees are woven into a more action- and poetry-driven narrative. So how do you make sure your backstory doesn’t take the main stage? Here are four signs your story is at risk of being upstaged by its own substructure.
1. The backstory is more interesting than the main story
If you need copious amounts of backstory to get your readers interested in the current story or characters, you might be writing the wrong book. David Mack talks about how The Midnight Front evolved out of what was supposed to have been the backstory to another project. When he tried to trim the background details, he says:
I discovered that all of it felt essential to me. In some cases, the backstory felt more vital and exciting than the near-future A-plot I intended it to support. That was when I experienced a dispiriting epiphany: I was writing the wrong novel.
Dispiriting because abandoning a project can be a really tough move… but Mack suggests following your instincts rather than trying to force something to work just because you’ve already spent a lot of time on it or because you’re attached to the idea. Writing is laborious. Accept that much of that labor will never see the light of publication. But – like Edison’s 1,000 unsuccessful light bulbs – your efforts will support the work that you do eventually publish.When backstory is the most interesting part of the book, ask why it isn’t the main story.Click To Tweet
Imagine if David Balfour of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped learns that he’s the rightful heir to the House of Shaws and then the story veers off in a totally different direction. This backstory (Ebenezer cheating David’s father out of the estate) is integral to the plot, but imagine if the author had included this fact as part of David’s character profile: David was poor because his uncle cheated his father out of his inheritance. And now, the story of David, which has nothing to do with the thing I just told you.
This obvious over-simplification represents a very real problem, though. I often edit stories where certain details make me go, ‘Wait, no! Tell me more about that!’ If your backstory is compelling, it might be your actual story. Tie it in, or give it its own platform.
2. The reader can’t find the main story arc
Easily a fourth of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is backstory. It can eventually be boiled down to a much more gruesome version of what Disney gave us, but it takes a loooong time to get there. A handful of readers love that stuff: history of Paris, history of the cathedral, history of human politics, history of anything. Most don’t. One of our readers recently persisted through Stephen King’s meandering and convoluted Wizard and Glass and, in the end, counted it worthwhile – as I would count The Hunchback of Notre Dame worthwhile. However, it’s dangerous to bank on reader stamina when it comes to lengthy backstory.Don’t let backstory swamp your actual plot.Click To Tweet
Focus on what the reader actually wants to read; excessive exposition is a treat for the writer, but the reader encounters it as pointless filler.
3. The backstory is off-topic
If a backstory is incongruent with the message of the main story, disrupts the action, belongs to a different genre, or is otherwise antithetical to the story you’re trying to tell, you may want to reconsider whether the two narratives are compatible. When writing Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s editor suggested that the characters’ backstory was the more interesting story, and Lee should shift her focus to write about that.
The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, but (at least in the end result) the characters and messages are fundamentally different. The latter is redemptive, civil-rights oriented, humanitarian, and ahead of its time. Its portrayal of Atticus is heroic. The former is inflammatory, full of sociologically dangerous ideas (suggesting that the civil rights movement was disruptive to a peaceful and trusting society), and it’s hard to believe that its version of Atticus would be quoted as saying, “You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”If your backstory doesn’t gel with the main story, consider changing or excising it.Click To Tweet
With Go Set ma Watchman now available in what many view as an unfinished form, it’s clear to see that it just doesn’t belong on the same stage as its predecessor. Lee (and her editor) were right to think that the backstory was better off detached from the story that spawned it.
4. The backstory is ‘necessary’
There’s a moment in the movie Captain Fantastic where the character’s situation demands a degree of backstory. Ben is talking to his deceased wife’s father on the phone and says, “Leslie had a disease. She needed to be in a good facility. You were kind enough to offer to pay for it as long as she was treated near you. We did that.”
Other than this conversation, there’s very little in the screenplay to explain how living in the woods with your wife’s kids while she languishes, suicidal, in a facility 2,000 miles away just because she has bipolar disorder is supposed to be the right life decision. This weird, callous arrangement gets lost because the rest of the story is dazzling and offensive and engrossing, but upon closer analysis, it clearly serves to prop up an unmistakable weakness in the plot. I’m not saying the plot point is irreconcilable; rather, the script fails to reconcile this point and uses backstory to cover the flaw. This is ‘upstaging’ in the sense that Ben is required to step out of character and narrate what’s happening so that the reader/viewer can track the premise of the story. The degree to which backstory is needed gives it too much power, allowing it to act counter to the rest of the story. In such cases, it can be better to restructure some elements of the main story rather than rely on backstory as a crutch.
So how do you tell whether the backstory is authentic or a crutch? Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management suggests this:
Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know – not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader.
Contrast the quote above, where Ben has to explain what’s going on, with what follows: “I found her will. I assume that you know Leslie was a Buddhist.” This might seem like backstory, but it has an authentic place in the story. Ben wants to honor his wife’s dying wishes, and her belief system factors in closely. The rest of the story centers heavily on the conflict between Leslie’s Buddhism and her family’s Christianity.Just because your backstory is important, don’t let it take over your story.Click To Tweet
When there’s information you feel your reader ought to know, try writing it in. As an author, you should have intimate knowledge of the backstory, and writing it will help with that. Let it inform how your characters talk and the choices they make. Then cut all expository backstory out and see how the book reads without it. If there are gaps that require explanation, consider whether those gaps are genuine needs or perhaps deficiencies that need to be reconciled from the ground up.
How to put your main story on the main stage
As you work, remember that you’re writing on behalf of your characters. Follow them, and follow your instincts. You may have really specific goals and formulae in mind, but if you try to force them, your story will lose authenticity. If you find yourself stuck on some of these original goals, maybe they are your story. Follow their lead and see if the story is there. Do the behind-the-scenes work of writing backstory, just for yourself, so you really know your story. Then let the characters determine how much they need to share.
Here’s one way to think of it: your story is going on a first date. It needs to reveal a little bit of its history to make the reader want more, but if it spills its guts on the first page… well, there probably won’t be a second date. Later, when the reader and story are on more intimate terms, more of the backstory will be organically revealed.
What backstory examples – good and bad – have you seen in the books you’re reading lately? Let me know in the comments, and for more on this topic, check out Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip and The 4 Decisions That Will Help You Write An Amazing Flashback.