Sometimes when you’re reading, your eyes become droopy because its 3am and you have to go to work tomorrow and oh my god I didn’t notice the time and this book is SO GOOD I’ll just sneak in one more chapter…
But then there are other times when your eyes get droopy because The Book Is Boring.
It’s not capturing your interest.
There are plenty of reasons why a novel might bore you – and one of those is having too much backstory.
But not enough backstory will lead to the reader going, “Huh? Why did Janet go down the dark and spooky path into the murky woods? That doesn’t sound like her at all.”
What is the purpose of backstory?
Backstory exists only so that the current story of the protagonist makes sense.
Sometimes, that means the backstory is minimal – we don’t need to fill the reader in on every event that happened in Janet’s life from the moment she popped out of the womb.
Can a writer write too much backstory?
I’m not sure that they can. A writer needs to know their characters intimately before they can write them into a story. For me, that means writing anywhere up to 50000 words that I will never use, a good chunk of that being backstory. On characters, on situations… I’m really good at starting a novel in entirely the wrong place and having to go back later and chop the first seven chapters out because they are just the lead up to the main event.
But I needed to write those words. I needed to find out about those characters and how they felt about stuff and what their fears and goals and hurts were. I needed their backstory before I could write their story.
That’s not to say that any of those 50000 words won’t end up in the story. Backstory should be sprinkled through the narrative, put in when an explanation is required, as a memory or a flashback, or just a little piece of exposition. “Since she was a child, Melissa had hated heights.” Melissa might talk about an experience she had, or someone else might. But it would be brief, and it would lead into an action sequence or foreshadow a sequence to come.
Can a novel have too much backstory?
Oh hell yes.
Don’t bore your audience with the minute details of your characters lives that they never wanted to know. It’s only worth putting in your story if it directly relates to the narrative. And even then you should really consider closely if it’s necessary.
Dream sequences are backstory too, and they can be really annoying to readers. Make sure if you have to include them that they add to the overall narrative.
What was it in Janet’s life that made her go down the dark and murky path, when it was entirely against her personality to do it? Hints and subtle nods to those reasons are acceptable backstory. The entire story of her life from years five to eight is not.
It takes a bit of practice to know what should and should not be included as backstory. I’d suggest that you get your work thoroughly edited prior to throwing it out there – and I’m not talking about a check for grammatical errors or spelling mistakes.
Find someone who will do you a deep edit. It’s not cheap, but for your first couple of stories, it will be priceless. Pay attention to what they suggest you cut as much as what you keep.
You will get a feel for the correct amount of backstory. But it takes time and practice. So write more. And then, write some more.
Write some more.