What is “backstory,” and how do I remedy it?

Webster’s defines backstory as “a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot.” This doesn’t quite explain it though, does it? Backstory includes that chunk of information about a character’s background or history. Why is it frowned on in the book industry? Because it has a tendency to move slow and distract the reader from the current plotline and action. To avoid this writing “no-no,” here are some tips that may help you curb the amount of backstory you incorporate in your writing:

1. Ask yourself where the story starts—which should be some sort of action scene. Cut out everything before that scene and save it in a separate document.

2. As you work through the book, you can pull sentences or information from the deleted material to add for character development. But be careful not to give too much information; rather, “tease” the reader with tidbits of the history that information by only giving a taste. Many times the leftovers can be used to set up a sequel.

3. Take the deleted scenes and create a mini-story around it. If you have a Web site, add the deleted scenes (similar to that of a “director’s cut” for movies) to your site. This allows you to part with the excess material without totally disposing of it.

The key to keeping the reader hooked and the pace moving is to keep the reader guessing. Too much information steals the intrigue. If you’re giving so much information that the reader isn’t asking “but why did THIS happen,” then you need to pull some of that information out, back up a few sections, start teasing with it, and then answer it after you’ve got them asking the next question.

  • Is this point made obvious through actions, plot, or examples set forth in the text?
  • How well is the message integrated into the story?
  • Does your conclusion summarize the point of the book or offer application to the reader’s life?
  • Does each chapter somehow relate to the central theme?
  • Are the dilemmas in the story consistent, believable, and true to the nature of the characters?
  • Does the language promote fresh information in each sentence?
  • Do the word choices reflect active verbs, imagery, and personal voice that engage the reader?
  • For non-fiction titles, are reflective examples shared with the audience to validate the point and apply it to the reader?
  • For fiction titles, do the characters have a deep, rich background that shows why they are who they are and how they can relate to a potential reader?
  • Does the overall story engage the emotions by causing the reader to care about the characters or contemplate the subject addressed?
  • Is the mind stimulated through reading the book?