Writing has ruined me as a reader. It used to be that when I stumbled in a book, I thought it was my fault. Now I usually blame the writer. I notice and nitpick things I used to let slide. One of those things is delivering backstory.
What Is Backstory?
Backstory is whatever happened before the book starts, so all books have backstory. In science fiction and fantasy, backstory sometimes also include information about the world that the character already knows. So it can include geography, government, magic system, and so on. While the character knows these things and thus is unlikely to think about or comment on them, the reader is not similarly informed. The writer needs to fill in the gaps.
As an aside, I was once in a writing group where the other members were all smart, generous critics, but none of them read SFF. When they tried to give me feedback, they floundered trying to figure out the story’s world. One of them suggested that I include a prologue that explained everything. But SFF readers enjoy being dropped in the middle of a story and figuring things out. It’s part of the pleasure of the genre. An explanatory prologue is not the way to deliver backstory for them. It’s not the way to deliver backstory for anyone really.
Backstory as Personal History
Backstory also includes characters’ personal history because that’s where their motives often lie. One of my favorite recent reads is Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.
Think “Ocean’s Eleven” with teens. That book spends time showing us the characters’ pasts so we understand and sympathize with them. Notably, it doesn’t start with that material though. It draws us in so we want to know these characters better.
“Casablanca” is my model for delivering backstory. We get the account of what happened between Rick and Ilsa in Paris exactly half-way through the movie and by that point, we’re dying to know. That’s what I want for backstory. I don’t mind a line or two scattered in the opening chapters. Indeed a fantasy author in particular probably has to do that in order to orient the reader to the world. But don’t dump it in extended blocks of text.
Suggestions for Delivering Backstory
Here’s what I think about how such information should be given to the reader:
1. Wait until I need to know it. If the author explains too much too early, I might not remember it fifty pages later anyway.
2. Better still, wait until you’ve made me want to know it. Hint at something that’s motivating a character. Mention an event but don’t explain it right away.
3. Give it in bits, not big chunks. That way you don’t stop the story.
4. Give it as the POV character interacts with it if possible. Being told about a character’s family is much less interesting than meeting them when the character goes to a family birthday party, for instance.
Readers need to know what motivates a character, so backstory is important. But there are stronger and weaker ways to deliver it.