As the name suggests, this is the story behind the story. This can contain important information that's necessary for understanding of the novel or short story. Backstory isn't always necessary to write about, so a smattering of it is all that's really needed in a book. This is the story the author has in mind to give depth and motivation to the characters.
Try not to do an information dump early on in the book. Many of us do that, but it isn't wise. Readers don't like it. They want to get into the story and let it carry them away. Sure, there are things they need to know, but they don't have to know all of it ahead of time. It can be revealed gradually, peppered throughout the story, spicing it up.
Having too much backstory is a mistake even experienced writers make. It's particularly true of rookie writers. I know, because I did made it in my novel, Indian Summer. I had almost a full chapter of backstory. After it was accepted for publication, I realized I had some work to do on it. I cut the first chapter almost entirely and began just before the point of attack. (Which will be discussed in another article) The result was a tighter, more enjoyable book that I am still very proud of.
While I have your attention, something that goes hand in hand with backstory, is research. At some point, whether it be history, theoretical physics, astronomy, music theory or what night the full moon was in October of 1713 (which I looked up a few days ago), we all have to do some research. Please pay attention to what I say next, because it will save you grief down the line.
Readers don't want to know all that stuff you spent hours looking up. If they want a lecture on how to prepare hominy grits, for random example, they'll read a book about that. They don't need to know how many miles to Babylon, unless that's pertinent to the action of the story. So leave that out. Why? Because: (say it with me) Readers don't want to know! (Let 'em hear ya outside) Readers don't want to know!
Add what tidbits make the story unique and true. Don't bore your audience with inconsequential facts. I read a book several years ago where the author made this mistake in a big way. He'd obviously done his research and was so excited by it, he felt compelled to share it with the readers for eight pages. Eight pages where the characters did nothing, he just yammered on about whatever it was. Not only that, but when he went back to the characters, they discussed it! Talk about overkill.
Readers don't want to know!
Though we can look at the great literary works of yore, and say “Well, Charles Dickens did lots of back story. Look at A Tale of Two Cities. It begins with one of the most quoted words of all time!” That may be true, but we aren't Dickens and our audiences aren't going to sit still for:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
(Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859.)
To be perfectly honest, when I read that in school, I got bored very quickly. When I heard it a few years later at my high school graduation, I was really tired of it.
Look closely at the above paragraph and you'll notice it's all one sentence. Talk about a run-on!!! While this worked for Dickens, it won't work for us. I'm not saying that writers must adopt Hemingway's abrupt, choppy style. That's nearly as annoying as the long, flowery speeches. My opinion, for what it's worth, is not to do either except for the occasional, special effect.
Avoid excessive Backstory and your readers will thank you by buying more books. Isn't that, after all, what it's all about?
© 2016 Dellani Oakes
Dellani Oakes is the author of 10 published novels and over 100 more which haven't been published yet. She's a Blog Talk Radio host on the Red River Radio Network. She's also former A.P. English teacher and journalist.