To paraphrase a saying, backstory is like a penis. Just because you have one, it doesn’t mean you take it out and show everybody. Unfortunately, too many authors fall into the trap of doing just that—providing readers with every bit of backstory on their world, their characters, their settings, and so on.
Let’s face it, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—and sometimes cursing, screaming, and head banging—go into writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a flash fiction piece or a novel, writing isn’t for the faint of heart. So, when it comes to all of the effort we expend on building everything from the ground up, it only stands to reason that we want to include it in the final product.
That is exactly what we shouldn’t do.
Backstory, while fascinating to the author, primarily serves to bog down the narrative and pace with extraneous information. For the most part, it doesn’t progress the plot. It can also be frustrating for some readers, who just want the author to get to the point and not bore them with anything that isn’t truly necessary. That can lead to readers putting down the piece and never picking it back up. Otherwise known as the kiss of death. No one but the author is going to be as enamored of the backstory as the author is. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true.
Now I’m not saying to have zero backstory whatsoever in a piece. Dribs and drabs here and there can really help to flesh out a world or characters. It gives a depth that makes everything feel dynamic and alive. It can set characters apart from one another. It can give meaning to the hero quest being pursued by the protagonist. It can make an antagonist more sympathetic or believable. It can make an otherwise dull story titillate the imagination.
Remember, though, dribs and drabs. If you’ve got whole paragraphs or pages of backstory, that’s the big no-no. The easiest way to gauge your level of backstory—because let’s face it, authors aren’t good, impartial judges of their own work—is to have a piece critiqued or beta read. Find someone or a group you trust and ask them to be honest with the intention of making your piece the best it can be. Then cut, cut, cut.
(I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t add a note that not only relates to backstory but also to other removed/edited parts of all pieces. Never, ever, ever, ever—and I mean never!—delete something once it’s written. Cut and paste it into a blank document. Save it. You never know when it’ll prove useful. This includes that lovely backstory that you’ve slaved over and can’t bear to part with for any reason.)
All authors fall victim to the siren song of backstory. It’s inescapable. But, fret not! It can serve a purpose, both for the author and for the reader who truly wants to be immersed into the world of their favorite book or author. If you don’t do this, I recommend starting a bible for each work you create. This has the initial purpose of helping to give life and depth to your characters and world. It also has the secondary benefit of helping you remember vital details that need to be maintained if your project goes beyond the length you had set for it. If you’re writing a series, a bible is a must! Don’t believe me? Try remembering everything about everything you’ve written from one book to another. It’s impossible, even for the most meticulous of authors.
Another benefit of the bible is to give backstory a place to exist. With your backstory living in the bible, it gives closure. The information is alive and serving a purpose. Later, you can include that information in related short stories, or in the glossary at the back of your book, or as content for your website. Backstory always has its purpose, even if it isn’t where you think it should be.
Ultimately, the author gets the final say (usually) in what goes into their work. Just make sure that what makes it in serves the purpose or all writing—entertaining the reader. That’s seldom achieved by waving around your backstory willy nilly.