Too little backstory by Randy Ingermanson

(This is exactly one of the things that irritates the tears out of me when reading a book!)

Beginning novelists often commit the capital crime of starting out with too much backstory. They're afraid that the reader won't understand the main story, so they feel compelled to put in long explanations.

Boring explanations about characters the reader has barely met yet.

Advanced novelists know better than to give the reader too much backstory.

But advanced novelists often commit the opposite offense -- putting in too little backstory.

Is that possible? And why is that wrong?

Let me illustrate with a little story:

You're going out to dinner with your best friend. As you sit down at your table, she says, "I've got a secret!"

You stare at her. "So, um . . . what's your secret?"

She shrugs. "I'll tell you later. It's not that important."

"Then why'd you bring it up?" you ask.

"Well, it's fairly important. You'll understand when I tell you."

"Why can't you tell me now?"

"I just want to build your curiosity so you won't leave halfway through dinner."

"Why would I leave halfway through dinner?"

"Because I'm not all that interesting and you might decide to go sit with someone else."

"Are you that insecure?"

"It's a really important secret."

"Then tell me now."

"I can't tell anyone."

"You've already promised you'll tell me later! Why can't you tell me now? What kind of game are you playing?"

A long pause. "So what shall we order?"

If your friend treated you like that, you'd be pretty irritated. Stringing you along with the promise of a secret is weird. It's unnatural. If a secret's important enough to mention, it's important enough to tell. If it really can't be told, then it shouldn't be mentioned in the first place.

But authors do something similar when they give the reader hints about backstory, but then unnaturally shut down. This can happen in any category, but let's look at a simple example in the romance category.

In a romance novel, the hero and heroine generally meet in the first chapter. They're immediately attracted to each other, but for various reasons, they can't get together right away. The story is about how they each overcome the obstacles keeping them apart.

Often, one of the obstacles is some previous relationship. That's fine. What's not fine is making an abstract allusion to that obstacle, as in this made-up

"Don't you think Jim-Bob's hot?" Mary Sue asked. "Your tongue's hanging out of your mouth, so admit it."

"Yeah, sort of." Honey Jane sighed. Sure, Jim-Bob was hot, but . . . memories of John-Boy flashed through her mind. "Jim-Bob's just not my type."

In the above, we've just got our first hint of Honey Jane's backstory with someone named John-Boy. But it's abstract. The author is TELLING you that there's a memory. He's not SHOWING you the memory.

That's the moral equivalent of, "I've got a secret but I'm not telling yet."

There you are inside the head of the point-of-view character. You're supposed to know everything she knows. But she knows a secret, and she won't even think about it, because then you'd find out. That's just weird.

When I see things like this in novels, I know perfectly well that the author is going to share that backstory sometime later on. But I still feel irritated. The author is insecure and is trying too hard to make me curious so I won't put down the book.

What's the fix here? As an author, you can't stop the main story to feed the reader a big chunk of backstory.
There are two main ways to handle this:

* If you're in the point of view of a character who knows the backstory, then give a little piece of it.
Maybe mention John-Boy's gambling habit. Or his sky-high ego. Or the fact that he was playing three girlfriends at the same time. Something specific, but not the whole story.

* If you're in the point of view of a character who doesn't know the backstory, then have her figure out there's a secret and try to weasel it out of the character who knows. This doesn't make the reader feel cheated, because the point-of-view character isn't hiding anything from her.

In the suspense category, you'll often find a flawed hero who has a mission. But the mission is harder than it should be because it stirs up some old hate or hurt inside the hero. Here's a made-up example of showing too little backstory:

Control leaned forward in his chair and smiled at George. "Look, I know you hate Howard's guts, but you two are my best men and you've got to cooperate or we won't get that bridge blown up. Can you do that?"

Rage clawed at George's heart. He'd never forgive Howard. Ever. He'd slit Howard's throat before he'd go on a mission with him. George gave Control a sheepish grin. "I'm a professional. Of course I can do that."

In the above, we've just learned that George hates somebody named Howard. We know nothing about Howard.
George does, but he's giving us nothing to hate. Once again, we've got abstractions when we need some concrete details.

Did Howard once leave George behind to be tortured by Nazis? Did he steal his lady? Put laxatives in his brownies? We don't need the whole story, but we need something to work on.

It's just not natural for George to feel rage without some sort of concrete image in his mind -- something he saw, something he heard, something he felt or tasted.
The reader feels cheated when the author glosses over the POV character's thoughts with an abstraction.

The bottom line is simple. Show the reader the amount of backstory that the point-of-view character would naturally think.

Not too much, of course. That would bore your reader.

But not too little either. That's just bad manners.
~^~ ~^~ ~^~ ~^~

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers.
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