Backstory and Front-Loading

Your characters didn’t appear out of the ether, newly created on page one of your book. At least, they shouldn’t feel like they did. They had lives before the story starts, families, jobs, religious affiliations, pets. If you’re going to make them feel real to the reader, you need to know their backstories. You need to at least think about where they came from.

But how much of their backstory should your reader see?

Backstory can be useful when creating characters to sketch out their entire lineage and life story. It can help you get a handle on who they are, so that when you’re writing their dialogue and plotting their actions, you’ll know what they will–and won’t–do. This is useful.

But when it comes time to actually write the story, consider not including that backstory in your text. Think about leaving it all in your notebook. Ask yourself very seriously how much of that backstory matters to the current story. Do we really care whether the Space Pirate Captain’s grandmother was fond of a certain brand of tea?

Everything you write in your story should be meaningful to that story. It should serve a purpose. Whether you’re writing a 5,000 word short or a 200,000 word epic, you just don’t have room for extraneous information.

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, used to talk about character stories. His players would come to him with fully fleshed-out characters who had deep, rich experiences before they arrived at the table. “Character story,” he said, “is what happens between level one and level five.”

(If you don’t understand what that means, you may be reading the wrong writing blog, by the way.)

In other words, the best way to get character details across is to show them. To dramatize them during the story.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that backstory–whether it’s told as flashback or narration or a letter found in an old dictionary–slows narrative down to a crawl. It distracts your reader from the rip-roaring plot of the adventure they came to read. It brings up the question of why, if this old news is so important, did you choose to start your book later on in time? Why not write the prequel first?

The other reason to avoid extensive backstory is front-loading. Front-loading is the problem that occurs when a writer needs to put a lot of detailed information into Act I, information the reader will need to comprehend and digest before they can understand the rest of the story. Front-loading is bad. It feels like homework. It doesn’t just slow down your plot–it turns it into a slog. A death march.

If your plot hinges entirely on what a character’s father said to them when they were a child, if your worldbuilding requires you to include three chapters on how the kingdom came to be ruled by somebody’s housecat… that’s front-loading, and it can ruin a great book.

Front-loading isn’t just a character problem, as we saw in that last example, but when it comes attached to characterization–when it’s all about backstory–it’s doubly deadly. There are readers who enjoy a good history lesson at the start of a book. But when you front-load the backstory of your main (or even worse, your secondary) character(s), you sabotage your story right from the start.

The first act of your story is about establishing things as they are now. Not how they got their way. The first act is where you tell us who the important characters are–if you have a lengthy scene with your character’s math teacher, then your story becomes, de facto, about that math teacher. The first act is about establishing stakes, but front-loading backstory makes it feel like your story is just the epilogue to some other tale.

Take a very close look at the backstory of the character you’re writing right now. How did that backstory effect them? How did it change them? Rather than describing those past events in detail, could you instead get away with, say, just showing us who they are today? Could the collection of tics and mannerisms that make up a character speak for themselves? Can we get that your character is an alcoholic not by describing their drinking days, but by showing how terrified they are of going to a wedding party where everybody will be drinking?

If your backstory is slowing you down, cut it. You may have to find ways to get information across–creative ways, innovative ways. But solving problems like that is ninety per cent of what it means to be a writer.

The Dreaded Infodump

Exposition is a crucial part of any story. It’s how you create your world and how you share it with your reader. Yet it’s also a great way to bring your narrative flow to a crashing halt and bore anyone who was kind enough to pick up your book. Writers often decry the “infodump”, the long, uninterrupted section of pure exposition which sits in the middle of your tale like an undigested lump of carbs. Yet it sometimes seems like a necessary evil. If you’re writing about a secondary world, especially, you need to convey a lot of setting and character information in a hurry, information your reader cannot be expected to know on their own.

There are a couple solutions to this problem, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One is to simply not do it–to shift the burden to your reader. William Gibson is famous for never explaining any of the crazy concepts he dumps on his readers. I remember reading Neuromancer for the first time and having to constantly check dictionaries and encylopedias to figure out what he was talking about–and nine times out of ten, even that wasn’t enough. Gibson expects you to pick things up from context clues. There’s a good reason why he does this, and it’s not just to frustrate his readers. He writes his stories from the perspective of his characters–characters who already know what an Ono-Sendai Deck is for, and what carbon fiber is and why you would build an airplane out of it. He shoves you into their headspace and this builds an incredible sense of immediacy and presence. He makes you live in his world. He’s a master of this, and lesser authors trying the same trick usually fail. Their work becomes impenetrable and mystifying, and not in a good way.

A more common technique is to use “infodrips” instead. Rather than just blurting out setting data in long multi-paragraph dialogue sections, you can deliver your exposition just a little at a time. A sentence here, a few words there, spread out across action scenes and great character moments. This technique helps keep your readers from feeling like they’re cramming for a pop quiz, and it can be effective–assuming it’s done with proper timing. Infodrips are fine in the first act of a story, and can be used sparingly in the second act. If you’re still delivering vital world-building information in the third act, your readers will (rightly) feel like you’ve been holding out on them. Oh, it turns out that the Sword of the Deathmuncher can only be destroyed by stabbing it into the heart of the Night Glacier? A fact which we don’t find out until the Swordruiner is actually on top of said glacier? Your readers will feel cheated. Additionally, infodripping can make your readers feel like you’re holding their hand as you cross the street. Like you don’t trust them to “get” your story unless you’re constantly explaining every little detail.

The best solution, in my experience, has been to avoid exposition wherever possible. Not by leaving everything obscure, but by grounding my stories to the maximum possible degree. Secondary worlds are wonderful places to get lost in, but by tying them closely to the real world, they become richer and they resonate better with the reader. The fewer things you need to explain, the more your readers will sink into the actual story. Cut back as much exposition as you can. If your character is carrying a Kandisian force-glaive, could you achieve the same effect by saying they’re holding a plain old halberd? Does your story need a High Hierophant of the Seven Tyronian Mysteries, or can you get away with calling them the Space Pope? Maybe you can’t! Maybe there’s a real difference, one super important to your plot. More often than not, however, you can easily use a simpler term or a more relatable concept to the same effect.

Look at your story, at what you’re trying to say with it, at what effect you want to achieve. Think about how to achieve that sense of mystery or emotional truth with more grounded ideas. If you do absolutely need to put something in your story that has to be explained in depth, that’s fine. But do you really need two such things? Three? High concept notions are fun, and can make your story stand out. Putting too many of them in one story, however, leaves you scrambling to explain how they work and how they interact–robbing you of time you could be spending on character arcs and building suspense. Infodumps are evil, kids! And the trick to fighting necessary evils is to isolate them and break them down into smaller problems, whenever possible.