Is Backstory Killing Your Book’s Plot? Here’s How to Fix It

Is backstory killing your book's plot?
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The following is an excerpt from 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing, available now.

So many new writers start their books with pages — even chapters — of backstory.

They want to tell the reader all about the creation of their fantasy world. Or they want to make sure readers understand every nuance of Mexican politics in 1956 because it will be critical to the plot on page 103. Or they want to make sure the reader understands every feature of time travel or cloning in the year 2133.

Then their writing coaches or editors suggest that instead of including all this material in the opening chapters of their book, they should just reveal the backstory through dialogue.

Aha, the author thinks. Dialogue — of course! But instead of jettisoning their precious descriptions and explanations, they essentially put quotation marks around the same ponderous material.

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Your backstory can slow down the plot

None of your characters should talk like the narrator. And readers still don’t want a backstory dump, even in dialogue. Your attempt to stuff backstory into dialogue results in long, tedious monologues instead of more believable two-way conversation.

Let’s take a look at a before-and-after example passage:

Before:

Debby started panicking. “You know, John, that we can’t send people back in time without the right amount of energy, and even though we’ve done an excellent job in extracting energy from dark matter, as our last two experiments attest, I fear that there isn’t enough to get Colleen into the past and out of danger. Just look at the flux capacitor levels — the microcosm indicator is off as well, and it needs to be at 90 percent for a guaranteed trip. The flux capacitor is crucial for making a time jump, and needs to be at about 92 percent efficiency to work well. Also you need to contact Clare and Silas and make sure they can divert another 38 gigawatts of energy to the main frame so in one hundred hours she can make her jump back to the present. The main frame can handle up to 50 gigawatts, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Whew, did you find that tedious to read? It was pretty tedious to write, too.

To make matters worse, these types of monologues often take place in the middle of important action. Readers aren’t going to believe a character will stop and give a lecture when bullets are flying or buildings are blowing up around her. Backstory, even in “active” dialogue, stops the present action.

After:

Debby frowned at the bank of blinking lights. “We don’t have enough energy here for Colleen to make the jump.”

“Is there anything we can do?” John asked.

An alarm sounded, and Debby hit the panel to the left to silence it. “Don’t know.” She glanced at the flux capacitor level and gritted her teeth. It was nowhere near the 90 percent she needed. “I think you need to contact Clare and Silas. Maybe they can divert more energy.”

“Sure, but how much?” John asked.

Debby thought for a moment. “I need another 89 gigawatts of energy.”

“All right,” John said, jumping up out of his chair. “I’ll contact them — if I can find them.

In this example, we assume that John and Debby already know a great deal of the backstory and pertinent information because they are in the story. Even if I wanted to make sure that the reader (as well as John) was clear about time travel, a cumbersome description only slows the action and raises more questions than it answers.

Readers don’t really need to know it all

Have faith in your characters, and have even more faith in your readers. Allow the reader to enjoy the journey. It can be more fun for them to discover the world and plot along with the heroine.

Sometimes dense description given through dialogue sums everything up, causing the reader to wonder why they should bother to read on.

Use a limited amount of shorthand that your readers will understand to convey what’s going on. Use the characters to convey their expertise in their own proprietary language, which can add depth to a character and give a better sense of what’s going on.

Become the expert in your field of study, and of the world you are developing. But don’t build a time machine piece by piece through your dialogue.

Backstory keys to success

Next time you’re weaving backstory into your project, remember:

  • Jettison the dense backstory paragraphs at the beginning of your novel’s scenes.
  • Explain in common, character-driven language some finer points of the plot via dialogue.
  • Trust your reader to pick up on gestures, expressions, and atmosphere as substitutes for direct (and long) explanations.
  • Don’t explain everything. Only include bits that are essential and interesting, and that advance the plot.
  • Don’t build a time machine all in one monologue.
  • No one wants a truckload of information dumped at the start of a story. Readers want to be swept away, transported — not buried under a ton of rock.

Readers don’t spend as much time as they used to “getting into” a novel or story. It’s your job to put the reader into the action and intimacy with your characters as quickly as possible. The rest will follow.

How have you introduced backstory in your own writing?

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S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and five writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and non... .

Live Write Thrive | @cslakin

C. S. Lakin
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Comments

  1. This may be an unforgivably picky point, but a gigawatt is a unit of power (energy per unit time). Gigawatt-hours are units of energy. So, in the above narrative, the need was for additional power, not for additional energy.

    • Hi John,
      We’ll let the excerpt examples stand since they’re just examples, but I love that you pointed this out! Just another reason to check and double-check your research while you’re writing, even if a topic feels familiar.
      Thanks for reading!
      Lisa Rowan
      Editor

  2. Another term for what is here called “backstory” is “exposition,” and how true it is that modern readers have far less patience for it than those in years gone by! Try reading a novel from a century ago, and you’ll wonder how people slogged through page after page of essentially raw data (and why some of the “classics” are held up as examples of excellent writing). Times change, and writers must change, too.

    When editing pieces with too much exposition, I have at times suggested folding it into the events, not merely the dialogue. This combats the temptation to put quotation marks around passages that remain static information, and also forces the writer to consider just how much the reader really needs to know in order to understand what is happening.

    I believe our society’s approach to storytelling has stopped being literary and has become more cinematic, even in books. “Show me; don’t tell me” has long been the slogan for playwrights and screen writers. Now, that maxim must also be followed by novelists.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editing and Writer’s Coaching
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  3. “None of your characters should talk like the narrator.” Great, tweetable takeaway!

    • Exactly. Nothing reminds the reader that they’re reading a story like “telling” dialog. Along the same line, don’t have your characters telling each other things they should already know for the benefit of the reader. Have to keep it real always.

  4. Good going if I were to adhere to the fact that none of the character should speak tot he narrator or the character speak to each other on known fact which will only stall the suggestible reader.

  5. Poet mm Tobias says:

    Writers don’t succesfully plan their own murder. They stumble on it, some characters just won’t come out clear to you. So you fit whatever you can into materialising the supposed character who seem playing hide and seek. Well, I agree with Trish. We must change too, you can’t expect me to write like shakespeare or Tolkiens to readers that want the fish to jump out of a sahara desert. Writing should be streamlined, must be a selective participation. A platform should be created to screen books not worth publishing. That’s my Opinion.

  6. Guy Riessen says:

    While first-poster, John, makes a valid point about energy, I think the dialogue would be even more spare. I’m a strong believer in cut, cut , CUT! The dialogue should be real between knowledgeable characters.
    “I need another 89 gigawatts of energy.”
    Would she even say “of power” or “of energy?” Nope. You gotta drop that tidbit in elsewhere if you *really* feel it’s necessary. And 99% of the time it’s not necessary since readers will simply accept that the power is not enough…they don’t need to know it’s gigawatts or nanowatts. Whatever it is, it’s not enough!

    Real tech-speak wouldn’t include that because, well DUH, 89 gigawatts is going to be power. Plus, it’s completely clear by including “watts.” And even if it isn’t clear to a reader, the two people speaking would know.

    In your example I think it’s plausible to say the long version, “gigawatts,” but two scientists talking in a clipped rushed fashion might even drop the “watts” and say they were short 89 “g’s.”

    Really the only time you need to be clear about something to that level is if your plot is going to hinge on a mistake related to that. John got Debby 89 MEGAwatts not 89 GIGAwatts, so tragedy ensues, for example.

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  1. […] Lakin wonders, is backstory killing your books plot? The Write […]

  2. […] Is Backstory Killing Your Book’s Plot? Here’s How to Fix It – CS Lakin at The Write Life on how to learn to trust your characters to get across what the story needs without loads of guffy exposition. “None of your characters should talk like the narrator.” I should tell Bennet that… […]

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