Backstory: Who Needs It?

01 Jun

To tell A story, you don’t have to tell ALL the stories.

Let me explain. Say you’re telling the story of a doctor who goes to Mexico to help out after a horrible hurricane. The main point of the story is how this work changed her, made her see how shallow her life in the U.S. has been, and made her want to start a non-profit foundation to help bring micro loans to the poverty stricken area. It’s a fairly good story.

Quiz time: What parts of her story are essential to this overall story?

A. Her relationship with her mother as a child.

B. Her relationship with her grown children now.

C. Her medical school training and years of internships and residencies.

D. Her dislike of outdoor toilets and how she was traumatized as a child by an outhouse.

E. None of the above.

F. All of the above.

The answer is E. Or F. Am I confusing you?

Okay. Let’s look at each situation in a case by case way.

Obviously, anyone’s relationship with their mother is important to who they are now, even fictional characters. But do we need to know about this character’s childhood mother issues in order to read her current story about medicine in poor areas of Mexico? I vote no. So, if you have a bunch of backstory about your character, it’s probably important to you as the author in order to fully know and understand your character, but your reader—the reader of this particular story—doesn’t need all that information. Cut it. (Now, if you want to tell the story of this character’s childhood and her relationship with her mother, then leave out the part about her growing up and going to Mexico to help people.)

The character’s relationship with her grown children in the present day may or may not be important to the story. But I tend to think it’s not that important. I mean, the children are grown. Presumably, this is part of the reason this woman has the time and freedom to go be a doctor to poor hurricane victims in Mexico. Her children probably don’t need her much. However, if they are helping her start her foundation, well, that might be a necessary part of the story. But then again, we probably don’t need to hear everything about the children from conception to preschool Christmas pageants to their soccer prowess. Unless of course, soccer plays an integral role in the developing foundation’s goals to help the children by giving them soccer fields or something.  So include only the bits and pieces of their life stories that matter to the current story. Or don’t include them at all, because the reader will probably infer them through the actions, words, and biases of the characters as they are now.

Medical training is only important to the story in as much as we need to know this character is a licensed medical doctor. Beyond that, we really don’t need to hear about all the late nights she spent in the hospital where she did her residency. This story isn’t about her med school years, it’s about now, in Mexico. All we need to know is that she’s a doctor.

Answer D, dislike of outdoor toilets, might be of use to the story, as it’s highly likely that there is no indoor plumbing where she goes in Mexico. Or if there was, it has likely been knocked out by the hurricane. Once again, though, we probably don’t need to know the whole sordid story of the childhood trauma that caused this dislike—whether it was a spider, a rattlesnake, or a creepy uncle. The character can allude to the trauma in a humorous moment when she first has to pee on site in Mexico. ‘Nuf said.

Most of us write way more backstory in our first draft than we need. That’s okay, because we need to get to know our character and her world. But as soon as that first draft is done, you can feel free to cut all that backstory in favor of giving us more details of the current, more interesting story.

So. . .um. . .I have some scenes I need to go cut.


Posted by on June 1, 2012 in backstory, plotting, writing craft


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6 responses to “Backstory: Who Needs It?

  1. Liz Fredericks

    June 1, 2012 at 5:53 AM

    Good advice, Neysa! An experienced author once warned me ‘not to fall in love with the backstory’ and you’ve confirmed it.

  2. Janis McCurry

    June 1, 2012 at 6:59 AM

    Very good examples! Thanks.

  3. MK Hutchins (@mkhutchins)

    June 1, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    Great post. I found myself trying to figure out how each example could be relevant, but it all went back to tying into what the story’s really about. If she bought/buys her kids every toy/gadget on the planet, for example, that could be one detail that shows how her life felt shallow. It makes me think that backstory and deciding what/when to include it is part of the reason people often advise to always have a short summary, or through line, of a book while writing.

  4. Peggy Staggs

    June 2, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    Good things to think about. Thanks.

  5. maryvine

    June 2, 2012 at 8:51 PM

    I’m guilty of putting too much extra stuff in my first manuscript, but since then I just don’t want to take the time to add anything extra. 🙂 Good reminder. Thanks, Neysa.

  6. Clarissa Southwick

    June 2, 2012 at 9:58 PM

    Good advice, Neysa. I usually don’t put in enough backstory and then people say, “Now why would he do that?” It’s hard to find the happy middle.


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