Fiction Tips: Kill Your Backstory

Fiction Tips: Kill Your Backstory

Let’s look at some fiction tips which will help you to write a successful novel.

Writing fiction is huge fun, especially since you don’t need to write novels to sell. You can write novellas and short stories. When you get around to writing novels, and enter NaNoWriMo next year or the year after, you’ll have a much better understanding of craft.

Info dumping of backstory is a challenge for new authors, and some established authors too. There’s a solution. Kill it. You’ll write a better novel.

Kill Your Backstory

“Backstory” is everything that happens before your story starts. Let’s say you’re writing a “woman in jeopardy” mystery. Your heroine wakes up in the trunk of a car, bound and gagged.

Good going: it’s exciting, you’ve started in media res, so your readers will keep reading…. if you don’t mess it up.

Resist the Impulse to Explain

New writers start off great. They get the woman in the trunk of the car (or create some other hot action which starts things off.) Then they feel they need to explain who the woman is, and how she landed in the trunk of a car. They go on for pages and pages. RESIST! Please do not do this.

For one thing, your readers don’t care. They’re in your story, because you’ve done a good job getting them to empathize with your heroine’s plight. They want to know what happens next.

So tell them. Her captors lift her out of the trunk and dump her on the ground. They’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark. What does she see? What does she feel, when her captors start arguing about her?

Your explanations are backstory. You need to know the backstory, but your reader doesn’t. You may have heard that you should start slotting backstory into your novel after the setup, somewhere after the first few chapters. This can work, but honestly? It still bogs down the story. You want readers to keep reading, so only tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it.

Her captors slice through the cable ties on your heroine’s ankles. They’re still arguing. One guy punches the other. Your heroine takes off into the woods…

Do your readers need to know anything else at this stage? Maybe your heroine realizes who wants her dead, from what her captors said. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, there’s no need to go into backstory at all.

At this stage, my students usually say something like: “Yes, but…” because they feel uncomfortable. Primarily, it’s because they haven’t prepared.

Here’s how to prepare. Write out your backstory, in a few pages. Summarize it. If you’ve been happily creating character bios, and other junk, stop it. Who cares what flavor of ice cream your main character prefers?

Remember, YOU need to know the backstory, but your reader doesn’t. He’ll pick it up as he reads. Avoid the temptation to dump information.

I like Jami Gold’s post on info dumps and how to eliminate them:

Move the Plot Along: Make the info dump relevant to the current scene and the characters in the scene—that way it’s not there only for the reader’s benefit.

Show two characters arguing about a point of information, a character realizing how some issue will affect them, etc.

Keep Telling Your Story: Move It Forward

So, our heroine’s running through the woods. She runs into a tree and knocks herself silly. Although her hands are tied, she manages to get up. She sees torchlight, and hears her captors blundering towards her. She knows she has to get away, or she’s dead.

Consider your reader. Has he stopped reading? Not a chance.

Moving it along: our heroine stumbles onward. She sees headlights, and reaches a road. She steps into the headlights of a car.

Keep moving it along: she’s rescued by _________ (fill in the blank), who takes her to ________ (fill in another blank.)

Keep it moving. If you want to explain something, don’t.

Read: How Do Other Authors Insert Backstory?

You are reading, aren’t you? If you’re writing, you need to read. Pay attention to how authors manage backstory in your genre. In some genres, like fantasy, you need to set up your world, so that readers know where they are, and what the rules are of this fantasy you’ve created.

However, don’t dump this stuff in. Show what the rules are, in action, and in conversation.

Here are the benefits of killing backstory:

  • Your readers keep reading, because they want to know what happens next;
  • You won’t get sidetracked writing material which bogs down your story;
  • You’ll write a better, more engaging novel (or short story).

Here are the benefits of killing backstory


Updated: January 20, 2018

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Series: Selling Writer Strategies, Book 3
Genre: Writing

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Angela Booth is a top copywriter, multi-published author, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills on her websites. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her business books have been widely published.