Working in backstory

Here’s a pretty good post from James Scott Bell at Writer Unboxed: Weaving Backstory Into Frontstory

Loads of exposition larded into a chapter can turn reading into a slog. But does that mean it should be chucked completely?


Backstory, when artfully laced into the opening pages, actually works as a bonding agent. Which, I would argue, is the primary task of the opening: get us emotionally connected to a character facing a disturbance to their world.


Working backstory and worldbuilding into the introduction of your novel can indeed be something of a challenge. I don’t know if you agree, but I personally just detest an infodumpy prologue where the author explains the world. Hate hate hate that kind of beginning. Anne Bishop’s Others series has that kind of prologue, for example, and it probably took me at least an extra year or two to read the first book because of it. (After which I turned out to like the series quite a lot, though I don’t think the worldbuilding actually makes much sense.)

I’m not saying it’s impossible for that kind of prologue ever to work for me, and in fact I have seen indications that some readers do like to start out with an infodump, though I’m pretty sure most of them wouldn’t say it in those words. But rather than a prologue that explains stuff, I much prefer just not knowing much about the world or the situation or the characters. Not knowing stuff is fine with me at first, while an author works in the necessary details as the story unfolds. Not sure I quite agree that this is what builds an emotional connection between the reader and the story, but that could be part of what I like, some of the time.

Who are some writers (besides, ahem, me) who do this well? Let’s take a look at how four different authors work backstory and worldbuilding into their stories as they open their novels. In alphabetical order:

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them. He glanced over his shoulder. The well-worn track behind him curled up around a rolling rise, what passed for a hill on these high windy plains, before dipping again into the late-winter muck of Baocia’s bony soil. At his feet a little rill, too small and intermittent to rate a culvert or a bridge, trickled greenly across the track from the sheep-cropped pastures above. The thump of hooves, jangle of harness, clink of bells, creak of gear and careless echo of voices came on at too quick a rhythm to be some careful farmer with a team, or parsimonious pack-men driving their mules.

The cavalcade trotted around the side of the rise ridding two by two, in full panoply of their order, some dozen men. Not bandits – Cazaril let out his breath and swallowed his unsettled stomach back down. Not that he had anything to offer bandits but sport. He trudged a little way off the track and turned to watch them pass.

The horsemen’s chain shirts were silvered, glinting in the watery morning sunlight, for show, not for use. Their tabards of blue, dyes almost matching one with another, were worked with white in the sigil of the Lady of Spring. Their gray cloaks were thrown back like banners in the breeze of their passing, pinned at their shoulders with silver badges that had all the tarnish polished off today. Soldier-brothers of ceremony, not of war; they would have no desire to get Cazaril’s stubborn bloodstains on those clothes.

To Cazaril’s surprise, their captain held up a hand as they came near. The column crashed raggedly to a halt, the squelch and suck of the hooves trailing off in a way that would have had Cazaril’s father’s old horse-master bellowing grievous and entertaining insults at such a band of boys as this. Well, no matter.

“You there, old fellow,” the leader called across the saddebow of his banner-carrier at Cazaril.

Cazaril, alone on the road, barely kept his head from swiveling around to see who was being so addressed. They took him for some local farm lout, trundling to market or on some errand, and he supposed he looked the part: worn boots mud-weighted, a thick jumble of mismatched charity clothes keeping the chill southwest wind from freezing his bones. He was grateful to all the gods of the year’s turning for every grubby stitch of that fabric, eh. Two weeks of beard itching his chin. Fellow indeed. The captain might with justice have chosen more scornful appellations. But … old?

What do you think? We know quite a bit about Cazaril already, don’t we? He’s definitely hit a rough patch. Plus, we know that this looks like a pretty standard fantasy world. I think we know more about Cazaril than the world, but both are taking shape in these six paragraphs. Bujold sees no need to add an explanatory prologue about the five gods or the way they influence the world, nor any explanation about how Caz comes to be in rough shape. We learn a bit more about his recent injuries in the next couple of pages, and we start to learn about the gods as well when he finds the dead man a page or two after that. Then, as you all know, Bujold goes on unfolding a bit of the background here and there as she nudges the story along. Definitely a good example of how to work in the backstory and worldbuilding without stopping to explain everything to the reader.

Okay, here’s another: A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly

Had Cardinarl Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thrusting her up against the brick wall of the carriageway and forcing her mouth with his kisses, Benjamin January probably wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss later on.

Now, THERE’S a story for the papers. January considered the tangle of satin and buckskin, the crimson of the prelate’s robe nearly black in the darkness of the passageway save where the oil lamp that burned above the gate splashed it with gory color, the grip of the man’s hand on the woman’s buttocks and the way her dark braids surged over his tight-clenched arm. Certainly the American papers: Cardinal Richelieu Surprised with Leatherstocking’s Sister It was a common enough sight in the season of Mardi Gras, when the February dark fell early and the muddy streets of the old French town had been rioting since five o’clock with revelers – white, black, and colored, slave and free, French and American – bedizened in every variation of evening costume or fancy dress. God knew there were women enough yanking men off the high brick banquettes into doorways and carriage gates and public houses on Rue Royale and Rue Bourbon and all over the old quarter tonight. He wondered what Titian or Rembrandt would have made of the composition; he was turning politely to go when the woman screamed.

The fear in her voice made him swing around, just within the arch of the gate. The oil lamp’s light must have fallen on his face, for when she screamed a second time, she cried his name.

“Monsieur Janvier!”

A stride took him to the grappling forms. He seized His Eminence by the shoulder and tossed him clear out of the carriageway, across the brick banquette, over the dark-glittering stream of the open gutter and into the oozy slops of Rue Ste-Ann with a single throw – for January was a very big man – making sure to cry as he did so in his most jovial tones, “Why, Rufus, you old scamp, ain’t nobody told you . . .?”

Timing was everything. He’d learned that as a child.

Even as his victim went staggering into the jostle of carriages, he was bounding after him, catching the man’s arm in a firm grip and gasping, “Oh, my God, sir, I’m terribly sorry!” He managed to yank the enraged churchman out of the way before both could be run down by a stanhope full of extremely Cooperesque Indians. “I thought you were a friend of mine! My fault entirely!” Richelieu was pomegranate with rage and thrashing like a fish on a hook, but he was also a good half foot shorter than January’s six-foot three-inch height and hadn’t spent nine years carrying cadavers – and occasionally pianofortes – on a daily basis. “I do beg your pardon!”

January knew the man would hit him the moment he let go and knew also that he’d better not hit back.

He was correct. It wasn’t much of a blow, and at least Richelieu wasn’t carrying a cane, but as the scarlet-masked villain flounced back across the gutter and disappeared into the dark maw of the gate once more, January was surprised by his own anger. Rage rose through him like a fever heat as he tasted his own blood on his lips, burning worse than the sting of the blow, and for a time he could only stand in the gluey street, jostled on both sides by gaudy passersby, not trusting himself to follow.

I’ve been in Paris too long.

Or not long enough.

He picked up his high-crowned beaver hat, flicked the mud from it – it had fallen on the banquette, not in the gutter – and put it on.

The last time he’d let a white man strike him, he’d been twenty-four. An American sailor on the docks had cuffed him with casual violence as he was boarding the boat to take him to Paris. He’d thought then, Never again..

He drew a long breath, steadying himself, willing the anger away as he had learned to will it as a child.

Welcome home.

Honestly, it’s hard to find a better example of working background into the story than this. We don’t know much about Benjamin January, but we know that people who know him trust him to help in tight spots, and that he’s been in Paris, and that for some reason he has been lugging around both cadavers and pianofortes.

And we sure do have a clear impression of both the place and the time. Hambly has no need to say, Here in 1830s New Orleans, race prejudice is an important feature of life. Though there is a short author’s note in the front, it is not in any way necessary to read it to get a vivid sense of the period. In fact, this is something well-written historical fiction can do so much better than any textbook – give the reader a sense of history, I mean.

Here’s another, shorter selection. This one’s from Inda by Sherwood Smith:

“Let’s go fight the girls!”

Inda Algara-Vayir’s shout signaled the end of morning chores. Broom handles clattered against the stable walls and buckets thumped down as the boys of Castle Tenthen whooped with joy. Dawn had brought the first clear day of a late spring. After winter’s bleakness, the sunlight shafting from the still-low northern sun cheered the castle’s people going about their work.

For the young, it meant the first war game of the year.

“What’s your plan, Inda?”

What’re we gonna do, Inda?”

Some of the older stable hands laughed as the boys romped like pups, exchanging shoves and yapping questions that no one listened to. Might as well be barks.

A hard thump across Inda’s back came from cousin Branid, the tallest and oldest of the boys. “Be a short war if the girls aren’t ready for us.” Some of the other boys paused, and Branid added, smirking, “Unless you want us to attack ‘em while they’re up studying scrolls with your mother or restringing the bows.”

Inda shook his head. “They’ll be ready. Worked it out with Tdor at breakfast. Both to finish by midmorning bells.”

The boys yelled again, then Inda said, “We’ll have a short one today. On account of the mud. Later in the week, if the ground dries, we’ll have our first overnight game.”

This time the cheer the boys sent up was very close – as close as they dared – to the notorious academy fox yip.

The girls waiting at the lakeside heard the cheer and grinned at one another in readiness.

And up on the castle walls, some of the Riders on sentry duty and the women of the Princess’ Guard who were on watch smiled, remembering the first war games of spring in their own youth, for these were the days in Marlovan history when both men and women guarded the castle walls, men outward, women inward.

How about this? It’s a short section, I know, but so lively and catchy! Who could resist turning the page? Don’t you want to know all about these war games and how the boys’ attack on the girls is going to go? They all seem to be enjoying themselves; that’s important in establishing the tone and drawing in the reader.

We know something about the world, too. It’s a fantasy world; we don’t know a whole lot about it; but we do know that both men and women defend their castle home, and we can guess that gender roles may be important.

When you go on with the book, you find that stuff starts happening right away, and that the reader doesn’t really understand much of what’s going on. This is fine. Curiosity about what’s going on and what’s going to happen and what shape the story’s going to take keeps the reader turning the pages. Or it did me.

One more, a brief snippet of the beginning from The Sunbird by Elizabet Wein:

Telemakos was hiding in the New Palace. He lay among the palms at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain’s rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make. Telemakos was watching his aunt.

She, Geowin, ought rightfully to be queen of Britain, queen of kings in her own land. Everyone said this. But she had chosen to send her cousin, Constantine, home to Britain as its high king, and she had taken his place here in African Aksum as Britain’s ambassador. Goewin was young, barely a dozen years older than Telemakos himself. She often held informal audiences in unofficial places, like the Golden Court. She said she liked the sound of the fountains. Telemakos sometimes lay in his hiding place for hours, listening, listening. He did not understand all he heard, nor did he talk about it. But he loved to listen.

These men were not taking his aunt seriously, Teleakos could tell. They were talking about the salt trade. One of them was an official from Deire, in the far south beyond the Salt Desert, and one was a merchant, and one was a chieftain from Aar, where the valuable amole salt blocks were cut. The men were supposed to be negotiating a way of sending a regular salt shipment to Britain in exchange for tin and wool. But their conversation had deteriorated into a litany of complaints, and they spoke to one another without acknowledging Goewin’s presence, as if she were a servant or an interpreter. If they did acknowledge her, it was to make some condescending explanation, as though she were a child.

Telemakos knew how this felt. It was one reason he had become adept at keeping himself hidden. People taunted him for his British father’s hair, or they touched it superstitiously as if it would bring them luck; it was so fair as to be nearly white, incongruously framing a fine-drawn Aksumite face the color of coffee. And everyone hated his stony blue eyes, for which he could not blame them. “Foreign One” was the least offensive name they gave him. It was something Telemakos had lived with all his life, and he thought he did not mind it. But it was not something to which his aunt was accustomed, and he knew it made her angry.

I think this is an interesting contrast with the first three snippets. There is quite a bit of plain telling in this beginning. It’s a good example of why the advice of “show don’t tell” is sometimes treated with more deference than any piece of advice deserves. Wein is very rapidly filling in background for the reader in short infodumps, especially in the second paragraph. Why does this work?

Well, because the first paragraph is extremely catchy, that’s one thing. It gives us a vivid sense of place – imported soil, wow, that’s different. Palms and fountains, and why in the world is Telemakos hiding behind the plants spying on his aunt? So right away we’re getting a sense of the protagonist as well, enough to be curious about him. Then we’re invited to empathize with Telemakos: he doesn’t quite fit in, he’s considered somewhat foreign.

Also, the second paragraph, where we’re handed a chunk of background, is, first, very short, and second, from Telemakos’ point of view rather than handed to the reader by the author. Plus notice how much Wein doesn’t explain. And everyone hated his stony blue eyes, for which he could not blame them. Hmm. What beliefs do people here have about blue eyes? We don’t know because Wein doesn’t tell us that. But we’re certainly eager to find out more about this world. It’s a lot like the first mention of death magic in The Curse of Chalion or the first mention of cadavers and pianofortes in A Free Man of Color or the Riders in Inda; an important detail that is left, at first, unexplained.

Okay, who’s an author who you think does a particularly good job of working in backstory and worldbuilding? Or who has managed to pull off a good infodumpy prologue that actually works?

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8 thoughts on “Working in backstory”

  1. Did you read the whole Others series? I thought the first couple books were excellent, but I’m curious if you’re as disappointed as I am about how the later books shaped up.

    And, I frequently skip the prologue entirely, and almost never find myself lost or confused. But, in Tamora Pierce’s Realm of the Gods, there’s a rather significant scene hidden in what initially looks like a “remind readers what’s going on prologue”, and I didn’t notice until after multiple rereads.

  2. I’ve read the first four. I do agree that the 4th was not the best. Too bad you don’t feel the quality picked up again after that.

  3. ‘The Forgotten Beasts of Eld’ opens with an old-fashioned prologue…and it works. I’m not sure how she pulled it off, but that opening section really pops even though it uses a technique that normally makes me fall asleep.

  4. You are right! The prologue absolutely does work in Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Hmm. I need to go re-read that and see if I can figure out why.

    Brevity is probably part of it. And just plain beautiful writing. Hmm. Definitely time to take a close look at it and see what else might be going on there.

  5. I think the forgotten Beasts bit works because it isn’t a prologue. It’s part of the first chapter. While it’s a data dump it also has character. Here’s the first paragraph:

    The wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king’s city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye. Heald, who had two eyes black as the black marshes of Fyrbolg, came and went like a wind out of the woman’s life, but the child Myk stayed in Mondor until he was fifteen. Big-shouldered and strong, he was apprenticed to a smith, and men who came to have their carts mended or horses shod were inclined to curse his slowness and his sullenness, until something would stir in him, sluggish as a marsh beast waking beneath murk. Then he would turn his head and look at them out of his black eye, and they would fall silent, shift away from him. There was a streak of wizardry in him, like the streak of fire in damp, smoldering wood. He spoke rarely to men with his brief, rough voice, but when he touched a horse, a hungry dog, or a dove in a cage on market days, the fire would surface in his black eye, and his voice would run sweet as a daydreaming voice of the Slinoon River.

    Sense of action: coupled, bore. Came and went like a wind..Myk’s whole character summed up in three lines. The place has a king and at least one unnamed city – because everyone would know the king’s city – and a named black marsh. The marshes the next line tells us has beasts that dwell beneath its mirk and move sluggishly.

    No gratuitous murder of the character just as we’re getting to know him, either. We get his whole life in the next bits.

    It’s alive, sets up a shape of story and characters, and the story proper begins with Sybel’s birth, because it breaks the pattern.

  6. That is just so beautifully written, isn’t it? It’s a miniature story at least as much as an infodump.

    And the only type of book where it’s okay with me if the viewpoint character dies just as we’re getting to know him or her is a murder mystery. Any other genre, I’m probably done at that moment.

  7. Revisiting the thread to drop a note that the Teen insisted I read Garth Nix’s FrogKisser! (pause to wonder about punctuating the sentence, since that exclamation point is part of the title.)Which opens with a prologue(labeled and everything), which works. It’s short and focuses on the Royal Dogs forseeing trouble for the princesses interspersed with doggie behavior. “…the old dog. She sighed and paused to sniff at something that rolled out of the fire. As it wasn’t food, she continued. … The puppies barely restrained themselves from leaping up and wrestling with one another. This was exciting! But the old dog fixed the most wrigglesome with her sheep-stunning gaze and they settled once more.”

    Ok, I admit I’m partly talking about it because I like that phrase: sheep-stunning gaze. And dogs, of course, for our hostess.
    But it’s a charming prologue that worked for me. So has the book, as far as I’ve gotten – It is unique but reminds me of Wrede in the Enchanted Forest mode, Thurber’s 13 Clocks, and the overall tone of Nicholas Stuart Grey’s Nightworld, or Fabylon tales. Very different from other Nix I’ve read.

    And, to tie in the more recent YA/grim thread, it is very much not grim, even though grim things happen.

    Oh, and so far except for the prologue the POV has been the younger princess, not the dogs.

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