A post at Jane Friedman’s blog: How Do You Know What Backstory to Include?

I like this post, which seems less shallow and facile than a lot of posts about writing craft.

As the creator, you’ll want to know more about your story world and the people who populate it—to bring the story more realistically, vividly to life, even if not all of that backstory makes it onto the page. But trying to present all and every detail of those influences would overwhelm the story, dilute it. You have to determine which parts of the character’s life before your story begins are directly intrinsic to the story readers are now experiencing. Backstory is intrinsic when it immediately and materially serves the story in some key way.

I particularly like this post because of the first page I posted yesterday, from The Fourth Wing:

Every Navarran officer, whether they choose to be schooled as healers, scribes, infantry, or riders, is molded within these cruel walls over three years, honed to be weapons to secure our mountainous borders from the violent invasion attempts of the kingdom of Poromiel and their gryphon riders. The weak don’t survive here, especially not in the Riders Quadrant. The dragons make sure of that.

What part of this is important? The dragons. What part is totally not “immediately and materially serving the story?” The part about needing to secure the mountainous borders from the kingdom of Poromiel. This is the sentence I primarily meant when I said “rather clumsy explanation of the world.” I think this sentence is clumsy, and the reason I think it’s clumsy is because (a) the sentence itself is clumsy, trying to do too many things at once, and also (b) this is the wrong place for that detail about the borders and the aggressive neighboring country. A kid trudging up the stairs is not going to think that sentence, so that’s one reason this detail is out of place, so also (c) this is a failure of plausible characterization.

I didn’t really think about why the above paragraph doesn’t work for me until I saw this other post about backstory. I was so distracted by the first-person present-tense let’s-be-The-Hunger-Games vibe that I didn’t really think that much beyond that vibe. Well, that vibe and the completely cliched character and situation.

I need to try another bestselling fantasy novel. Or SF. Either way, next time, not a YA novel.

In the meantime, good post about backstory.

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4 thoughts on “Backstory”

  1. It’s actually not bad if you can stand the sex scenes ;).

    Maybe not original if you ever read Pern but catchy enough to me me read in a couple of days.

  2. Well, Kristy, “Not bad if you can stand the sex scenes” is the kind of faint praise that moves a book briskly away from my TBR pile. A book generally has to be better than not bad before I’m all that interested in skimming through the sex scenes.

  3. That post reminds me of the article/discussion on The Passive Voice, wherein whatever Passive Guy had found was going on about having to know whether the characters liked pizza, movies, what their childhood was like… etc., and someone in the comments remarked words to the effect of: none of that explains why Han (solo) came back to blow Darth Vader out of the sky. And we never did get backstory to explain it, but that’s the sort of thing one would want to put in, instead of the unimportant stuff.

  4. Elaine, EXACTLY. That the person likes anchovies on pizza is so trivial that I wonder if some authors use that kind of building-backstory as a distraction and procrastination device, to avoid writing the actual story.

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