Note: The opinions in this post are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the views of other writers or even other members of the Orca staff. – JP
What makes fiction work? What gives readers the feeling they are reading a great story and don’t want to stop? I’ve devoted a lot of time and research to this idea, reading the opinions of successful and well known writers, as well as critical articles from dozens of academics. I’ve come to believe there are some psychological factors that appeal to readers and make them want to read more. And I’ve discovered that using backstory in fiction, especially when it is ill-timed or off-topic, often works against those elements. In this post I’d like to point out why backstory does not work, and to offer a better way to write fiction.
Backstory is enormously prevalent in fiction. I’d estimate that more than 80% of the submissions we receive at Orca resort to backstory within the first page or two. Even many published works employ extensive, blatant, and often boring backstory right after the opening (not at Orca, of course). I’ve had other writers tell me they actually enjoy writing backstory.
I believe it may be helpful to take a deep dive into backstory to see if my opinion is justified. What’s involved when a writer uses backstory? What’s the motivation? What’s the result? Why do so many writers use backstory in the first place?
Some definition is in order. Often a story begins with a promising opening scene that contains good tension. As soon as that scene ends (or in some cases even before it is finished) the story switches to deliver background facts from a distant, authorial narrator. Something like this:
The assailant pulled out a gun and held it to Bob’s head. “If you don’t tell me what I want to know I’ll kill you right now,” he said. Bob’s knees began to shake uncontrollably.
A few years ago, when Bob had just graduated from college, he could not have anticipated a situation like this. He had been offered a job at a brokerage house. He was engaged to be married. All he could think about was the great things the future held in store for him.
That’s a little over the top, but hopefully you get the idea. The writer has switched from a tense and compelling scene to dry, factual background. The second paragraph is more like the writer’s notes than a part of the active story. This info may be of some use in understanding the character and his motivations, but it has nothing to do with the present action, which theoretically is the story you are trying to tell.
Let’s look at this from a reader’s perspective. Almost every well-known writer or critic who has written a book about writing has identified the aspects of fiction that readers subconsciously hope to find in a story and that hold their attention. Some of the most important ones are creating sympathy for characters, rising action, creating mystery, and maintaining forward momentum. (As you can probably tell, these are related to each other.) Consider each in its relation to backstory.
Creating Sympathy: This is perhaps the only aspect of fiction in which backstory might seem helpful, but that is an illusion. Providing background details about a character makes the character more easily understandable to readers. It touches on character motivation, which is crucial to creating sympathy. I can see why so many writers want to employ that device. But that doesn’t condone it. Good writers know that they can better convey character motivation through the subtext of the present action. What characters do and say in the present are clues to what’s inside them and what has happened to them in the past, compelling them toward their desires. Doing it this way engages the reader to want to know more about the character. Readers want to learn through discovery, not through backstory. This is how we learn about people in real life—gradually, through the actions they take and the things they say.
Rising Action: Anyone who’s taken even a beginner course in fiction has seen the graph of rising action. I like to think of this as an illustration of increasing tension from the beginning of a story to its climax and resolution. As events move forward things get tougher for the main characters. The barriers to achieving goals get bigger and more consequential until the character is forced to make a crucial decision or achieve a revelation. Backstory reduces tension by explaining things, by simply laying out the facts like a lecture. If the goal of fiction is to create rising tension, then backstory, by reducing tension, is a self-defeating device. It does not contribute to rising action, but instead works against it.
Creating Mystery: Every good story is a mystery. Good fiction gets readers to want to know what happened next. This is initially done by establishing the stakes for the characters. What do the characters hope to gain, and more important, what do they stand to lose if things don’t work out? A huge part of successful fiction is knowing how to get readers to turn the page. Good writers provide just enough information to get them to do that. They leave out some to make readers want to discover the rest. In concert with character sympathy and rising action this creates reader engagement, the feeling that makes readers forget about what else is happening in their lives at that moment and immerses them in the world of the story. Backstory, by its nature, does exactly the opposite. It explains things for the reader. It makes things clear, and therefore defuses the mystery. If a story uses backstory to answer my questions, then why do I need to keep reading?
Forward Momentum: “The story is not in the news, it is in the moment.” That’s a favorite quote of mine from the editor Gordon Lish. He understood that good fiction is immersion and engagement in another world. And that world can only be conveyed well by allowing the reader to participate in it. There’s no chance for participation in a work of fiction when a writer stops the story as if to say, “But wait, let me explain…” Think about why people love movies and plays. It’s not just because they are more visual and auditory, although that does have much to do with it. But think also about how you can’t really stop a movie or play to offer backstory. How would that go? The action would cease and the spotlight would focus on the director or the writer, who would then just sit there and tell the audience the facts about the characters’ past lives. Pretty silly, isn’t it? Backgrounding in those disciplines is done in flashback, which is not the same as backstory because it’s still in scene and it still has the immediacy of a scene. It’s also usually engendered by something that happens in the present action. You don’t just drop into a flashback for no reason at all. It’s triggered by something that’s happening in the present. Backstory is something completely else. It is simply an explanation, the kind of thing that you got when you were in school: Here’s a fact that you must know, and here is why you must know it. Few people like that kind of lecture.
Why Backstory is so Prevalent
Education: That’s part of the problem, however, because from day one we’ve been schooled by parents and teachers to explain ourselves. The emphasis in the American educational system is on making ourselves factually logical and understandable to others (which these days means rote memorization, but that’s another subject). There is not much emphasis on creativity. It makes some sense, since most people will not go into the arts, but will enter careers in which communicating facts are important (obviously this no longer includes politics, which has leapfrogged creative writing and now dwells in the world of fantasy). A writer must realize, then, that those lessons from childhood do not serve good fiction because that discipline is based on the communication of characters’ emotional states more than the facts of their lives. That’s one of the things that gives fiction its impact.
Examples in published writing: They are everywhere, and, honestly, have always been everywhere. I was writing a critique of a client’s short story recently and was reminded of a story on a similar topic that I had read a couple of decades ago and that has stayed in the back of my mind. I looked it up, and found it on the web, and started reading. To my shock I saw that the story dropped into several paragraphs of boring background facts before the first page was completed. Obviously my understanding of the art of fiction has changed over the years. But it’s no wonder so many emerging writers think it’s okay to write this way, and worse, that there is no better way to convey a story.
Laziness: Creating character sympathy through subtext is not easy. It takes a deep understanding of each character by the writer. It also takes the ability to convey that character motivation through subtle, symbolic language. Communicating these through backstory is a cheat. It is lazy writing. It’s a lot easier to write backstory than it is to write present action. Backstory is almost always exposition and summary. It is generally the writer telling the reader about character motivation, rather than allowing the characters to have the spotlight and convey motivation through their actions and dialogue, like real human beings. But since when is writing fiction supposed to be easy? It is hard, very hard, for most writers to inhabit the minds of several characters at once, but if a writer can it results in realistic, compelling scenes. Plus, it gives readers the opportunity to discover these motivations for themselves, and those revelations make readers feel involved and satisfied, instead of feeling like a passive listener.
Low Expectations: I’ll admit, some readers like backstory. Readers who like backstory like things simple. They do not want to work to figure out character motivation. They are not interested in character depth. They would rather have things explained to them, than be challenged to figure them out for themselves. It’s hard not to talk about societal trends when discussing reader preferences, and I am not an expert in that area. But a look at popular culture indicates that many people prefer sentimentality and nostalgia over reality and intellectual challenge, and since the publishing business is more focused on appealing to the general public than ever before, backstory (not to mention editorializing) in fiction will remain popular. If those are the people you want to write for, then fine, load your work with simplistic, boring backstory. If you would rather challenge your readers and use your work to say something more interesting, then you will need to eliminate backstory.
Speaking of Nostalgia: I believe there is a correlation between backstory and nostalgia. Both are simplistic. Both ignore the nuance and complexity of reality and wish to replace them with easy answers to difficult questions. In that sense both exhibit a fear of reality. They avoid the challenge of the present. Until about a century ago nostalgia was considered a mental disease (see https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/when-nostalgia-was-a-disease/278648/). It indicated an unwillingness to face the current situation. Although nostalgia is no longer considered a mental defect, it is still a way of retreating from the present. Backstory is like that. In terms of writing it looks inward, avoiding engagement with the reader, while realistic character sympathy looks outward, welcoming it.
If you want to write intelligent, compelling fiction I believe there is a better way. I am hopeful these suggestions will help.
- Stay in the moment and keep the story moving forward. Always remember that readers typically want to know what happened next, much more than what happened before. Forward momentum in fiction creates the rising action/tension that keeps readers engaged, and you can only maintain that forward momentum by staying in the moment. As much as possible keep the active scene going. Don’t cut it short by dropping into a long, boring explanation.
- Envision your story as a play or a movie. Readers translate what you have written into visual images, so the better you are able to imagine what is happening, the more compelling the story. Background facts do not translate into images as well.
- Instead of you saying it, let your characters say it. When you review the previous day’s writing (and this part of the revision process is a must if you are to become a successful writer) analyze how you have conveyed information. Is it coming from the narrator, or is it delivered through the characters? Keep in mind that character action and dialogue is much more effective at both engaging readers and conveying information. It’s important that you understand how subtext is used to convey meaning and character motivation in good fiction. There are many great books about using subtext. I recommend Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot.
- Does your reader need to know this right now? Does your reader need to know this at all? The same is true for the information you wish to communicate. When you read what you have written, ask yourself if the information is important enough to include, and if so, whether it belongs at the place you have put it. A mentor of mine, Bruce Holland Rogers, said it best: Don’t offer background information unless and until the reader absolutely, positively can’t go on without knowing it.
- Keep thinking about your readers—what do they want and expect from your fiction? Successful published fiction is a balance between what the writer wants to say and the readers’ expectations. Good fiction is not just about you. It’s about how you communicate with the people who will pay to read your work.
– Joe Ponepinto