The Great Backstory Debate

Last week we looked at the great semi-colon debate, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit!) Today we look at a real writing controversy, a little thing called backstory. Specifically, how much (if any) do you put in your opening pages?
You will find those who argue that there should be no backstory at all in those first chapters. Why not? Because, by definition, backstory is what has happened before your narrative opens, and you want to establish the action first, get the readers locked in on that.
This is, on the surface, sound advice. These days we do not have the leisure time, a la Dickens, to set the stage and do a ton of narrative summary up front. Or, a la Michener, begin with the protozoa of the pre-Cambrian earth and record their evolutionary development into the Texans of today.
I am an advocate of beginning with action (which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights). The best openings, IMO, show a character in motion. And further, manifesting a “disturbance” to their ordinary world.
I tell writing students, “Act first, explain later.” A big mistake in many manuscripts is that chapter one carries too much exposition. The writer thinks the reader has to know a bunch of character background to understand the action. Mistake. Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.
However, I believe in strategic backstory in the opening. I say strategic because you do have a strategy in your opening, one above all—bond your character with the reader.
Without that character bonding, readers are not going to care about the action, at least not as much as they should. Backstory, properly used, helps you get them into the character so there is an emotional connection. Fiction, above all, should create an emotional experience.
I also stress properly used. That means marbled within the action, not standing alone in large blocks over several pages.
The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, King and Koontz. You think that’s a coincidence?
So here’s the simple “rule.” Start with action. Let’s see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s some trouble, even minor, on the page (disturbance) and then you can give us bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if you write them well!) of backstory.
An early Koontz (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols) is Twilight. It opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:
To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.
But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.
Koontz bonds us with this Lead through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery which makes us want to keep on reading.
Now, a word of warning when writing in first person POV. It’s much easier for the narrator to give us a backstory dump. But the “rule” remains the same: act first, explain later. To see how it’s done, check out the opening chapter of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good, which begins:
Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.
We then cut to the mother’s funeral, and the narrator, Will Klein, leaving the house to walk through his old neighborhood. He has a specific place he’s going, the place where a terrible murder happened years before. Along the way he describes the setting and drops in some backstory, especially about one night when his big brother explained the “facts of life” to him from a ninth grader’s perspective. It’s a warm, human bit that creates sympathy. But Coben weaves it in with the action, which is about the narrator getting to the murder spot. That happens on the very next page. Very little time is lost to backstory.
Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She told me the following:
“I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic right at that point in the story.”
Good point from Laura.
How do you handle backstory in your opening pages? Are you strategic about it?  

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24 thoughts on “The Great Backstory Debate

  1. I’m in the minority as a reader because I don’t mind backstory. As a writer, I know it won’t fly in today’s society. But the balance of backstory is a struggle. I try to intersperse only the bits I need but often find I can cut out more then I thought.

  2. Yeah, I think that for the beginning writer, backstory is a big no-no. But at the same time, there are always exceptions. Authors like Stephen King or, as you said in your article, Dean Koontz have put a lot of backstory in their first chapters, and have pulled it off. But they’re the pros. They can do stuff like that.

  3. As with most other debates in fiction writing, it comes down to craft. If you do it well, with reader needs foremost in your mind, certainly you can include some backstory in the opening chapters. But if the backstory is there because you, as the author, needed to understand the character, so you wrote this elaborate backstory when you were first drafting the novel, then you’ve probably included far more backstory than the reader needs. It’s more interesting from the reader’s perspective to drop hints and create a sense of mystery.

  4. Good advice as always, Jim. When dealing with backstory, I try to answer the question: is this particular piece of information for the reader or just for me? The stuff that’s really just for me, I leave out. I’m a big supporter of your “act first, explain later” approach. One of the best tips you can pass on to any writer, especially one just starting out.

  5. Brayden, King and Koontz are great models for many things. And yes, they are “pros.” They’ve earned their stripes through hard work. It’s kind of fun to read very early Koontz (1970s) and see how he grew in the 80s. He did it by writing a ton and learning as he went. He wrote a book on writing popular fiction for WD, then a few years later another, in which he changed some things.

  6. Andrea, great point. Sometimes writers have spent a lot of time creating this extensive bio for their characters, and don’t want to “waste” that material. Sort of like research.

    But it’s much more effective, especially in the opening, to let that stuff be under the surface, like an iceberg, and have natural effects up top.

  7. Thanks, Joe. One great way to get at that is print out a hard copy of your first three chapters and highlight all backstory. See how much is there, how big the chunks, and then ask the very question you pose. Excellent advice.

  8. Here’s an example from Try Dying. Ch. 1 is about a bizarre death. Ch. 2 opens with the narrator in action, facing opposition (disturbance). A hugely successful lawyer named Barton Walbert. It’s a deposition. About four paragraphs in:

    I was a pup compared to Walbert. He was fifty-three and in his prime. At thirty-four, I was just hitting my stride. But the arrogance of youth is a good thing for trial lawyers. Like the young gun who comes to town looking for the aging outlaw, wanting to test the best, I was loaded and ready.

    I wanted to slip in the age and the attitude. Then I get back to the action. It’s quite enough for this scene.

  9. I enjoy looking back at how I’ve grown as a writer, and this is one area where I’ve improved. My earlier works had a lot of explaining in them. As I became more confident in my ability to weave things in, I discovered I could chop out those chunks of exposition. Much of that information, I discovered, wasn’t needed anyway. A writer can never answer all of a reader’s questions, and shouldn’t try.

    Tell the story. Leave the rest to the imagination.

    I like the highlighting idea for editing. I may have to try it on those earlier works–they are such a mess that it’s easy to lose sight of things needing fixing.

  10. Great post, Jim. I know that in my case, I will sometimes include a lot of backstory in Chapter One as a sort of catharsis for myself, just so I understand the character better. Then, upon review of the first draft, I’ll eliminate most of it and deftly weave the rest in.

    In the case of my upcoming noir novel, THE TAKE, I eliminated the first chapter altogether (with the exception of a few lines) and started with Chapter Two.

  11. Thanks, Jim.

    That’s great advice with great examples.

    For better or for worse, the movies have done this to us. Today’s readers expect movie openings, and if we don’t deliver, they’ll get bored and find amusement elsewhere. Edgar Allen Poe could write pages and pages of back story, but readers were patiently waiting, curled up in front of their fires. Now, they’re anxious to get back to YouTube or XBox.

  12. I think a great deal depends on what we mean when we speak of backstory. Pure backstory is a story that happens before the story we’re writing. If that’s truly the case, then we don’t need it at all because it has nothing to do with our current story. But there are also elements of a character’s life that frame who he is. For example, we could say, “The General was the product of two wars, though he had retired many years before.” We could call that backstory, though I would prefer to think of it as a very quick flashback because it has significant relevance to our current story.

  13. With my first novel, I dumped. Now I’d like to think I’m getting better at it (thanks to Plot & Structure – my favorite book).

    I love the term “marbled.” Gives me a clear description of how to use backstory. Thank you!

  14. Quite brilliant. Especially loved your point that backstory should be “marbled within the action, not standing alone in large blocks over several pages.” Marvellous metaphor, and exactly what one should try to do.

  15. Curious if you think genre plays a role in “how much” backstory is acceptable? I read a lot of highly acclaimed literary fiction that seems to include backstory “dumps,” as a rule of thumb. And I personally don’t mind them, as long as I am gripped at the beginning of the story with some type of ‘mystery’ or ‘suspense’ or engaging character conundrum.

  16. Melissa, I think you’re right on about so-called “literary” fiction having more of this, because so much of it is about style. I do think, however, even literary fiction is better off strategically with a more active beginning.

  17. In all three of my novels I tried something with backstory that a lot pretty good number of readers commented positively about, but seems to have broken some rules somewhere.

    I had what amounted to two complete stories running parallel. One runs in the present, the other runs 15-20 years earlier and builds the climax of the present day. According to listeners to the audiobooks and readers of the ebooks it worked pretty well. But then according to the fact that I have not sold to a publisher, maybe it didn’t. Hrm, dunno.

  18. Excellent post, Jim. I’ll be sending my writer clients here –this advice will definitely help them create more compelling fiction, and specifically an opening that will hook the reader in. Your Revision and Self-Editing is required reading for most of my aspiring author clients, as I want them to be on the same page as me when I’m editing their fiction, and you say it so well!

    I’m glad I discovered this blog and your posts, and will be checking back here regularly now.

  19. Just noticed this is an old post, but the advice is still as good as new.

    I like how you compared the inclusion of backstory and exposition to ‘marbling within the action’. That’s a great visual image for me to keep in mind.

    I also like to think of including elements of the backstory within the story structure as dropping crumbs along the way.

    Your Plot and Structure book was one of my writing bibles for the 4 years I was working on Guardian Cats. It was a great guide that kept me on track when I started wandering off.

    Just so you know, the Cats were launched in digital edition last month and I have the print edition appearing next week.

    Thanks for all of your help.

  20. Really great way to put it. I think we have all heard the “start with action” advise so many times without adequate explanation, and phrasing it instead to focus on the character “acting” is so much more descriptive of what needs to happen. Until we care about the character, even the most gripping car chase can’t really grip us.

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