Backstory Is Not Story

analysis-guess-speculation cartoonThat might work in a cartoon, but you just can’t start your story with backstory.

It seems like such a pity. The easiest solution is to start at the beginning and when we get to the end, stop.

And y’know, in the beginning, the gods created this really cool world, and it had magic, but only certain people could use it. And there’s this really great story to go with it, but before I can tell it to you, you have to understand all the magic rules and nifty creatures so you can enjoy it, too.

Snooze. And the silence of yet another reader not clicking on your buy link. (Trade publication would not be a likely possibility.)

I can hear the screams. But why?! Tolkien did it. Eddings did it. Insert-famous-author’s-name-here did it.

Yeah, okay, but chances are they didn’t do it in the last twenty years.

You’ve got to start with the story. I usually begin with the character, but some writers go with a little setting first. Notice the weasel word. A little. Have a character do something interesting. Give him/her a goal/obstacle that we can relate to and get the story moving. Give us pieces of the world as we need it.

Perhaps that’s the appeal of portal stories. Ordinary Joe goes to a magic world, and we get to find out about the magic with him. Or similarly, Harry went to Hogwarts, and we did the same thing. It’s a built-in set-up for gradual exposition.

But if you’re like me and you write stories set in this world, or if your protagonist already lives in an alternate world, you’re going to have to put some effort into dribbling it in. I can give you some pointers, although it’s easier to tell you what doesn’t work. One I already covered. Don’t give it to us in a prologue of How Your World Came To Be. Trust me on this. I’m telling you as a friend.

Another pitfall is name soup. Wederbrig swings his tralchon into the fanged orifice of the valmisk. The valmisk uses its malagia powers and disappears with the fair Erithrea, princess of Almedon.

It’s too much to process. Our eyes tend to skip over what we don’t know. This is the opposite extreme. We’ve gone from knowing too much about the world to knowing too little to make sense of it.

It’s a fine line to walk. I’ve had stories with feedback that the pace was too slow. So I cut back on description, and I had betas who were confused. (I’ve done lots of beta swaps.) Somewhere in between is that wonderful place where the Goldilocks reader is happy. The real challenge is that sweet spot varies somewhat from reader to reader.

Think of background information and description as reader chocolate. You don’t want to give it to them all at once, but you do want them to have enough to stay connected to the story and therefore interested. Give it out in m&m-sized morsels, not several Cadbury bars at once.

droidsfailiz2Remember Star Wars? They didn’t give us all the background of the Evil Empire up front. They showed us a pretty princess under fire and two cute droids trying to get away from someone who’s obviously bad. All the bits with the Force and who Obi-wan is and why we should even care get dribbled in slowly, just enough to keep us involved in the story.

This is what we need to do. And like me, you’ll likely have to do a fair number of beta swaps until you get it somewhat dialed in. It’s impossible for you as the writer not to know the background details of your world. That can make it difficult to step back and see your world through the eyes of a stranger.

And remember, just because your world isn’t near Ceti Alpha IV or doesn’t have a bunch of wizards running around, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any world-building to do. It may not be as obvious, but your contemporary story has a character who lives somewhere, drives something, wears clothing, and has an appearance. You’re going to have to give out that information with as much care as a fantasy writer will use explaining how their magic works (or why it doesn’t).

WarTerribleWarOne of the best solutions is to find one of your favorite books and study how they do it. I happen to like the Hunger Games. When I needed to add description during my last revision, I’d literally read a chapter of HG and then switch to revising one of mine. I tried to internalize how Suzanne Collins worked her description and exposition into her narrative, since I think she did a good job of it.

You may think Hunger Games stunk. That’s fine–choose another recent book that you like, and really study how that author pulled it off. Then try to apply the same rhythm to your story.

And keep writing. You’ll figure it out.

Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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9 comments on “Backstory Is Not Story
  1. I have to admit that in the first draft of my recent story I wrote the first chapter and then caved with a prologue that pretty much ruined it. I found myself fearful that the reader would be too confused without the backstory and would lose interest in the story because of that confusion. I love beta swapping too and am so thankful for my betas. They reassured me it wasn’t confusing and that I could go ahead and dribble the backstory in, that the story itself was engaging and rich without the need for the history dump.

    It was fairly embarrassing but I somehow needed that reassurance from my betas because, like you said, I couldn’t see my story from a strangers point of view.

    This is a great post Cathleen, thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading more on your blog πŸ™‚


  2. Reblogged this on Book Cover Design & Illustration by Michelle Rene and commented:
    Some great advice from Cathleen on backstory in writing…


  3. The True Light! says:

    Sounds like interesting and informative information…(alliteration!?)


    Liked by 1 person

  4. balroop2013 says:

    As a reader, I would say, however gripping the beginning, you have to keep the readers hooked till the end. Too much description alienates them and too much showing also irritates. The plot has to move forward, as going round and round in circles never makes a good book. Those that appeal to me are the ones that don’t dwell too much on a situation and find solutions to the problems. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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