21 July 2018

Full Disclosure

by John M. Floyd

One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."

Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.

True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:

"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.

One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!


  1. As you say, John, one size doesn’t fit all. For my personal taste, I generally like some back story in both what I read and write. Though as you suggest with some ye olden fiction there can be a tad too much. Like in some cases hundreds of pages… And, of course, it depends how the information is put out. Information dumps can truly grind things to a halt. But I do like knowing something about the characters and how they got where they are and why.

  2. A provocative post, John, and I agree with you and Paul that there's no single answer.

    I tend to put too much (and repetitive) backstory in my early novel drafts and gradually cut as I figure out the best place to include it. There is stuff first-time readers need to know about my series characters to explain why they behave as they do, but the later I can include it, the happier I am. I always tell my beta readers to be especially strict about those sections.

    Short stories...wow, that's a tough one. I include as little as possible, but two of my stories actually involve mostly backstory. In one case, two people offer different versions of the same events (sort of a Rashomon effect), and in another, a young girl is telling a young boy information that he's too young to understand...but the reader gets it.

    When I'm editing, I encourage writers to hold off as long they can and leave out as much as possible.

    I often cite Donald Maass's exercise in his Breakout Novel Workbook. Highlight all the description and backstory--everything that tells how the character got to where he is--that you find in the first fifty pages.

    Then move it all to chapter 15.

  3. John, I think Weaving in Backstory is one of the most important classes I teach (in my college course Crafting a Novel.) You've given a very good description of why books have changed in the last thirty years. I tell my students they can blame the smart phone. There are so many distractions in this world, that an author needs to capture attention quickly, *and keep it*. This requires a very deft hand at weaving in backstory, so it doesn't slow the main story.

  4. Thanks, Paul and Steve -- This really is an iffy subject. I think we agree that if backstory's needed put it in, but later is usually better than sooner, and try to make it interesting. And Steve, thanks for the Donald Maass advice--his guidance is usually good.

    One thing I didn't mention is that "series" short stories (or novels, or movies, or TV shows) seldom have much backstory, because it's assumed the reader already knows most of what he/she needs to know about the protagonist(s).

  5. Melodie, I wish I could take one of those classes of yours! Yep, it's a chore to tell the reader what's needed without making it boring.

    I, too, blame the smartphone!!

  6. John (et al)

    J. K. Rowling taught herself to write by writing. The later Harry Potter books are stronger than the early ones. They also include progressively less backstory because Rowling realized that her readers read all the books in order, so they didn't need anyone to rehash how Harry and his mates got to the status quo.

    I wish everyone read my books that way... ;-)

    And Melodie, I'd love to sit in on your class, too.

  7. Steve, I've found that my little Woman's World stories (all are, as required, less than 700 words) need no backstory anymore, but for the first few stories in that series I did feel compelled to put in just a little, maybe a few sentences, to lay the groundwork. Same with my longer stories in a series I've been doing for AHMM--more at first, less for the sequels.

    I've noticed that novelists whose series I read regularly still put in SOME backstory in their later installments, probably so that readers who are just now coming into the series won't be lost--but there is much less info included in, say, Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, than there used to be.

    And I think you're right about Rowling--she got better and better as the series progressed. I confess I have not read the books she's written under the pseudonym (Galbraith?). I wonder how good those are . . .

  8. I grew up (? :) ) reading Thorne Smith who would include about three chapters (!) of rambling backstory introducing us to the characters before the fun starts (the bored banker buying a haunted car, the man waking up in bed as a horse, ect.) I started a Smithian novel with the same few chapters of backstory. I cut them out.

  9. That's the way most books were back then, Jeff. See the advice Steve quoted, above: take all that stuff and move it to some later point in the story.

    I really don't mind a short prologue that gives me what I need to know, but I realize that's fallen out of fashion. What I continue to like, though, is a short prologue that gives you a piece of something that happens, much later, a kind of foreshadowing. I don't see that much, but I remember William Goldman did it brilliantly in his novel MAGIC, years ago. Just a thought.

  10. Good post. Made me think. Made me go back through my books.

    I realize I give backstory but only in short spurts in the middle of scenes. Active. Not stop-the-action passive backstory. I follow Elmore Leonard's lesson - leave out the parts readers skip over. Don't know if I'm right to do it this way but it keeps me from slowing the story down. I tend to give more backstory in historical novels.

    There is a lot more we writers need to know about our characters than the reader needs to know.

  11. "Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page."
    John M. Floyd

    I think I'm going to have that printed on a t-shirt. Thank you, John. Great post!

  12. Good thought, O'Neil--you're right: the writer needs to know a lot more about the characters than the reader does. And it makes sense that you'd use more backstory in your historical novels.

    Thanks, Stephen! Yep, I heard someplace that in a western you want to shoot the sheriff on the first page. Or, as Hitchcock did, kill off the only recognizable star in your movie twenty minutes into the story!! If that doesn't throw the reader/viewer off balance, what would?


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