Years of daydreaming and obsessing over ideas can leave us with so much background information that it becomes difficult to tell a concise story. If you include too much history, your story will be an overburdened mess. Even so, your story will probably be better off with some of it included. For those struggling with this dilemma, let’s go over what backstory to incorporate and what to leave behind. Just be warned: most of it will need to go.
When Does Your Story Start?
The first step is to make sure that all of your backstory should actually be backstory, and not your story’s opening. Lay out all the events in the past, present, and future, and look for the moment your story’s throughline begins.
While you may have multiple arcs that could qualify as a throughline, the one with the highest stakes will create the strongest structure. That’s generally something with external conflict, like a murder mystery or a life-or-death battle against an antagonist. If you choose something with more internal stakes, like your character’s acceptance of their heritage, that may allow you to include more backstory material, but it probably won’t feel like one story anymore. It will feel more like a series of stories that each need their own strong arc.
Once you’ve identified the big external problem your main character faces in the story, ask when that problem begins for your protagonist. For an example, let’s use a book that should have started with some of its backstory. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley is a solid novel and a Hugo nominee this year. While my summary includes some spoilers, I don’t think it will significantly impact the reading experience.
The Light Brigade is set in a dystopian future controlled by corporate entities. The main character, Dietz, is a soldier fighting a pointless and grueling corporate war. The external throughline is her struggle to control her reality and impact how the war ends. As written, the story starts when Dietz signs up for the military. In general, the protagonist signing up for the military is a good spot to open a book about a war. The war drives the throughline, and the protagonist gets involved when they sign up. However, later Hurley fills in some backstory that would have been an even better option.
The narrator explains that one of Dietz’s motivations for signing up was avenging family she lost in a tragic attack on São Paulo, called the Blink. This event not only instigated the war and motivated the protagonist to join the military but also is also crucial to the story’s end. The Blink clearly starts the story’s throughline.
However, sometimes the moment the throughline opens doesn’t mean anything without additional context. In these cases, adding another scene before it can be worth doing if the scene has conflict, offers a good introduction to the protagonist, and makes the throughline feel like it matters. In the case of The Light Brigade, the Blink won’t mean much to readers unless they know more about the people Dietz loses in it.
Before the Blink, Dietz had a split with her younger brother and her former girlfriend, both of whom disagreed with her decision to pursue a better life by serving the corporation. They left for São Paulo instead of staying with Dietz, and then the Blink killed them. Dietz believes the corporate propaganda about the event, but as the story continues, she realizes her brother and former girlfriend were right.
By opening with a scene before the Blink, Hurley could have covered Dietz’s split with her loved ones. Not only would this make the Blink matter to readers, but it’s a great place to start Dietz’s internal arc about breaking with the corporation. To add sympathy for Dietz, the departure for São Paulo could make her feel rejected and alone. Once the Blink happens, Dietz could feel guilty that she didn’t try harder to stop them from leaving.
If your external throughline has emotional weight without any prelude, start right there. If not, adding an earlier scene to introduce the internal throughline often works well. In that case, the opening should include a personal conflict that creates sympathy for the protagonist and sets up the external throughline. However, don’t include too much. Keep it as short as you can while making your opening matter.
If you’d like another example of backstory that would have made a stronger opening scene, see my critique of The Sword of Truth.
What Mysteries Does the Past Hold?
Besides starting the story, occasionally backstory may also be included later through flashbacks. However, flashbacks shouldn’t feel like an interlude that interrupts the narrative. They should be like any other unfolding event in the plot – they just happen to be back in time.
How does this work? If your throughline is about whether the protagonist will survive their encounter with the villain, past events can’t resolve that. But they can reveal information that alters the perceived chance that the protagonist will survive. Maybe a flashback shows the true identity of the villain, revealing their strengths and weaknesses. Flashbacks can also deliver essential clues or resolve mystery arcs altogether. If conveying this information is important enough to justify a full scene, that scene can be a flashback as long as it serves the same purpose.
For example, in the Harry Potters series, Rowling needs Harry to learn lots of clues from the past to set up current-day mysteries. Sometimes Harry talks to older characters to get this information, but often, Rowling employs various magical means of letting Harry see the past directly. In book two, Harry gets sucked into an old journal that shows him a scene implicating a side character in the attacks happening at Hogwarts. In book four, Rowling introduces the Pensieve to allow Harry to dive into past events regularly. Among other things, he uses it to see moments of Voldemort’s past that provide clues to how Voldemort might be defeated. Rowling could have given the same information in another way, but these in-story flashbacks offer a more immersive experience when delivering clues.
- Has Harry witness the scene with the reader, so he’s still actively solving the mystery and readers don’t leave his viewpoint.
- Never makes readers guess how these flashbacks are relevant to the current story, even when she’s delivering clues that pay off later.
- Sticks to a single scene at a time rather than introducing a second viewpoint character just for flashbacks.
Before you joyfully mine your backstory for mysteries, you should know this method comes with a big limitation. Your protagonist cannot already know the information in the flashback. If the protagonist knows, it’s not really a mystery in the story; it’s a trick the storyteller is playing on their readers. On top of that, the audience won’t fully understand the protagonist without knowing what the protagonist knows, and that can do a lot of damage to a story. This means that unless the protagonist has amnesia, a moment from their childhood doesn’t quality for a full flashback scene.
An omniscient narrator does have more leeway to hide what the protagonist knows, but only at the wordcraft level. Omniscient narration won’t repair the broken bond between the reader and protagonist when important sections of the protagonist’s backstory are hidden.
What History Will Add Impact?
After identifying everything that’s part of your story’s structure, it’s time to look for information that isn’t plot critical, but that will add emotional impact to the story. This might be history that:
- Makes a protagonist more likable. Readers might learn about selfless things the protagonist has done or hardships they’ve endured.
- Helps readers understand the protagonist’s goals and motivation. Knowing about previous encounters with places or people could clarify why the protagonist feels the way they do about them.
- Gets readers rooting for a central relationship. Perhaps readers learn how a friend or romantic interest previously helped the protagonist through a difficult situation.
- Makes the stakes of conflicts feel more important. Readers would benefit from knowing that an artifact the protagonist is about to lose was a gift from a dead loved one.
- Raises tension by mentioning past failures and tragedies. Readers will find the antagonist more threatening if they know about incidents where the antagonist harmed others and got away with it.
Describing previous events is very useful for adding impact, but it rarely requires a full scene. Instead, this type of backstory should be summarized and carefully worked into the narration as exposition.
To make your readers feel like something in the story matters, such as when the protagonist must trade away an artifact or when an old friend rolls into town, the relevant backstory should be inserted well ahead of when the emotional impact should be felt. If you wait, it probably won’t feel like the old friend even existed a chapter ago, much less like their reunion with the protagonist is important. Inserting summary in advance may not be possible in the beginning of the story, but you should still aim to communicate it as early as you can.
For an example of backstory that increases impact, let’s take the opening of Zootopia. As I mentioned in a previous article, visual mediums have more limited options for delivering information. As a result, screenwriters often use flashbacks to convey information that wouldn’t justify a flashback in a narrated story. That’s why Zootopia opens like so:
- Viewers see a childhood play that explains the basics of the world: mammals have evolved into sapient people. At the end of the play, a young Judy declares she wants to be a police officer when she grows up.
- At a festival, Judy’s parents tell her that she should aim lower because she’s a bunny, but she doesn’t listen. Already playing the part of an officer, she gets a kid’s stolen festival tickets back from a bully.
- As an adult, Judy struggles to get through police academy because of her small size. She persists through the tough times and graduates, a breakthrough for mammals like her.
- When Judy arrives for her new job as an officer in Zootopia, she is treated dismissively and assigned parking duty when all the other officers are given missing persons cases. It’s clear that the chief was required to hire her for political reasons and doesn’t actually want her there.
- Eager to solve crimes and not just give out parking tickets, Judy promises to a distressed otter that she will find the otter’s husband. Angered by this promise, the chief tells Judy that if she doesn’t solve the case in 48 hours, she’ll have to resign.
In this example, #5 is when the external plot gets going, and #4 makes Judy sympathetic and provides the context needed to make #5 matter. So the best place to open a novel would be #4. However, #2-3 would help readers understand how important Judy’s career as a police officer is to her. It’s not essential enough for a full scene, but working in summary about it will increase engagement.
The best place for this summary would be after the first scene or two, since those will be burdened with introducing Judy and explaining the world. However, it would need to be placed before her job is jeopardized in #5 to increase the impact of that moment. To motivate herself to keep going at her current job, Judy might think back on how her persistence has paid off so far.
What Explanations Are Necessary?
The last category of backstory to include is anything that won’t make the story more engaging but that’s needed to preserve believability, avoid confusion, or otherwise prevent a bad experience. However, preventative or not, these items are always a burden on the story. That means it could be time to kill some darlings.
Many writers have been laying out their background materials for so long that they’ve grown attached to them as part of the story’s lore. But if they are stilts the story is standing on, they may need to be revised just like the story will need to be revised. A background that is unnecessarily complicated can drown your story in explanation.
When you find something in the story that needs explanation, look for the simplest and most intuitive explanation that will work for the plot. If that fits the backstory you’ve already written, great. If not, prioritize the story you’re working on over the lore. Even if you’re planning sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, you’re much less likely to get around to those, especially if the current story doesn’t work out. The best thing you can do for your whole story universe is make your current story a smashing success.
Let’s take an example of backstory that didn’t have to be so complicated. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling has to explain who the book’s secret antagonist is. This is revealed to be Barty Crouch Junior, the son of Barty Crouch – a new side character introduced in the book. The son came to be at Hogwarts after being convicted for serving the villain, escaping from Azkaban with his father’s help, being imprisoned by his father for years, and then finally impersonating a Hogwarts teacher.
Part of the reason this is so convoluted is that it’s for a mystery plot, which can be purposely complex to give the protagonist more to uncover. Even so, Harry spends his year at Hogwarts, and all of this new backstory outside of Hogwarts is difficult to work in. The conviction part of the backstory probably exists just so Harry has some way of learning about the villain’s existence. Instead of all this, Rowling could have replaced this side character and his son with a Hogwarts instructor who had never been caught working for the villain. If Rowling wanted this instructor to keep masquerading as Professor Moody, they could be someone that went missing, and red herrings could suggest that Voldemort kidnapped them. This would be easier to explain, and all of the clues for this could appear at Hogwarts.
The bad news is that anything that hasn’t been covered so far has no place in your current story. The good news is that in most cases, there’s nothing saying your extra backstory didn’t happen, so you might have the opportunity to mention it in another work. Just keep in mind what your readers know and what they don’t, and make sure your story works with what you’ve told them.
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