Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Backing Out of Backstory

Posted by: CobraMisfit
Backstory. That magical artistic device that explains character motivation or world-building mechanics. It’s a necessary tool to give depth to the people and environments in our stories and something we, as writers, can’t do without.

But readers can.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying authors should shy away from filling in the background details. Far from it. Without it, you simply have characters wandering around without a purpose. But neither should we dump a huge exposition on readers. Finding that sweet spot between telling a story and telling the backstory is a balancing act. One that, if done well, will draw people into our worlds, then reward them for sticking around. Readers need to feel like you could answer all the questions, but that’s not the same as actually answering them.

An excellent example is the current CW series, The Flash. Season 1 ended on a huge bang, then Season 2 picked up several months later. Did any new super-villains appear in that time span? What happened to the infamous Braille Room or Gideon? I’m sure these questions will be answered in due time, but for each episode, the viewers are told what’s happening now. Only occasionally do the characters touch on the backstory. As a result, the world of The Flash feels larger. Bolder. More realistic. Every week we tune in to find out another juicy morsel of The Backstory, all while watching the cast worry about the wolf closest to the sled.

For those who remember Star Trek: The Original Series, fans became obsessed with the unanswered questions. The writers teased at a world that was enormous, yet they only told the stories that were important to that episode. As a result, fans filled in the blanks of the off-screen universe. And, as such, the backstory.

The thing is, life doesn’t always give us the full story. Sometimes we only have snippets of the folks around us, even those we are close to. We learn those pieces slowly over time. So when a literary work gives us too much backstory, it feels forced and less realistic.

The question becomes where do you draw the line? At what point does your playful teasing of meaty bits wear on a reader’s patience? Also, where does filling in the backstory become an info-dump that bores your audience? I’ll admit that if I get too far into a story without knowing what led to the current state or why the characters are so concerned about the plot, I lose interest pretty quick. So too, if someone spends a lot of time explaining in detail why this character is so important, it becomes tedious. Readers what to be tantalized, to be wooed. But they also want a payoff. They just don’t want it all at once.

And therein resides the quandary. How do we, as writers, ride this envelope? How do we pull people in and keep them entranced without dragging it out too long or dropping volumes of data in their laps?

Without question, the ability to weave a tale that entices, yet satisfies, is one of the hallmarks of good writing. And authors who have cracked that code are well worth studying by those of us who want to learn that ability.

So who do you turn to for examples? What authors balance on that razor’s edge so well that you keep coming back for more? 


Joshua Roots is a car collector, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.

Paranormal Chaos, the final book in The Shifter Chronicles, is available for pre-order wherever digital books are sold.

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