4 Signs Your Backstory Is Upstaging Your Real Story - A woman watches her younger self juggling, saying 'Show off.'

4 Signs Your Backstory Is Upstaging Your Real Story

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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.

9 thoughts on “4 Signs Your Backstory Is Upstaging Your Real Story”

  1. Thanks for your comprehensive explanation, Rebecca.

    If you will, please clarify a few things about backstory for me.
    1) Can the backstory be as interesting as the main story, or are we talking two different stories?
    2) How does Chekhov’s gun apply to backstory. In other words, must we eliminate all description that does not point to the main story? For example, there may be elements of the setting in the backstory that are not in the main story.
    3) And finally, is the painful process of putting the back story on a diet the same thing as “kill your darlings”?

    1. Hi, Jim.

      Great questions. Here are my nutshell answers:

      1) If you have two stories that are equally interesting, I think you need to question whether they are two separate books or if they interact well in the same book. Laurie Albenese’s _Stolen Beauty_ jumps back and forth between two generations of the same family, and it works beautifully. Both storylines are part of the same story, each is strong enough on its own (ie, not a backstory), yet they wouldn’t be sufficient on their own (ie, two separate books). Other times, this wouldn’t work so well (if _To Kill A Mocking Bird_ and _Go Set A Watchman_ had been crammed into the same volume, for instance). So it depends on the story or stories in question.

      2) This is more of an article in its own right, but in brief: I would say yes, with the caveat that a passage’s ‘contribution’ to the main story is somewhat open to interpretation. Don’t let your story be that guy at the party spewing random trivia that no one cares about. But if Captain Trivia knows something cool, like, “This pub we’re partying in was built in the 13th century”? Sure, people care about that because it contributes to their experience of the place. With the detail in question, maybe ask yourself: does this contribute to the reader’s experience of the book?

      3) It can be. Killing your darlings refers to nixing the passages or phrases that you cling to because you love them, not because they’re right for your story. This may be true of a backstory, or an over-developed backstory.

      Thanks again for the great questions, Jim!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  2. I needed this. Over a year ago I started rewriting my first couple of chapters to include backstory as front story (and thus avoid info dumps and flashbacks). The chapters still aren’t working and this week I rewrote them again cutting the backstory to stray lines. It’s still not working and I’ve now read another blog saying there should be no backstory til chapter 3. I think I’ll put a caveat on that by saying no backstory unless the character wants to share a hint of it. I’ll put it in red so I can see at a glance how much backstory is present. (I’ll put characterisations in blue and settings in green too. Just to check the balance of information.)

    BTW I’m really glad I persevered with Wizard and Glass. My book is put downable near the end of the first Act even though the betas say the story is working. Thanks to Wizard and Glass I think I can cure a lack of suspense by introducing another brief POV from a minor character who is with the baddies. I like balance so I’ll use this POV once in each quarter of the book even though the other quarters are a downhill run: it’ll make it less clunky. At the moment I’ve got characters speculating on what’s happening. ?

    1. Hi, Kale.

      Great, I am so glad to hear this article came at a good time for you. I like how you found guidance from _Wizard and Glass_ as well, taking what didn’t work well in that book and applying it to your own project. It sounds like you’ve got good flexibility and are willing to bend to find the right trajectory for your story.

      Regarding the ‘no backstory till chapter 3’ comment, well… never say never. It can benefit you to wait, but I can also see reasons to jump right in. It depends on the story, like everything else. _Life of Pi_ has miles of backstory at the beginning. Someone might say the book would have been better if that weren’t the case, but it’s hard to argue with that level of success.

      Your project sounds really interesting, if challenging. I wish you strength and perseverance. I also know a good editor when you’re ready. 🙂

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  3. Judy Gerard Thomson

    For what I believe to be a successful “back story”, I look to The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The novel cuts back and forth between the present and the past.

    Other excellent examples are both by one author: Possession and Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt.

    And all three books are fine examples of interwoven plots, where past and present seem to interact with one another, on a near-quantum level a la the films Arrival and Interstellar (or among books, The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles).

    A truly adroit writer can do almost anything, including breaking rules, but rule-breaking isn’t recommended if you’re writing your very first book…unless you’ve planned out your structure to the Nth degree.

    Arturo Perez-Reverte and Umberto Eco pull off (in The Club Dumas and The Name of the Rose) stuff – long dissertations, literary histories, incunabular references, meandering tangents, and shifting “voices”) that would risk becoming rambling, even snore-worthy messes in the hands of less nuanced, less poetical writers.

    1. Hi, Judy.

      Great examples of interwoven plots! I think books that jump across time and generations often do well with this, but then I’d hesitate to call any of the interwoven stories ‘backstory.’

      In my comment to Jim, I reference the book _Stolen Beauty_ (gosh, I wish these comments would allow italics, drives me nuts…). The book goes back and forth between two stories, but neither is the ‘backstory’ per se. The backstory appears in historical blurbs between chapters – fact-based breaks from the narrative that provide a little more scaffolding for the two interwoven stories without deviating too far or for too long.

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. Also, honestly, everyone should print off your comment and use it as their fall reading list. Quality stuff.

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  4. I’ve just come upon this article and I just wanted to thank you so much. I’ve been struggling with my first novel which is, I now realize, drowning in its own backstory. This article was the first thing I’ve read that 1) articulates the real problem, and 2) gives me hope for this novel’s future.

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