30 July 2013

How Much Backstory in the Beginning is Too Much and How Little is Too Little?

Question from a writer on Facebook:
You and most writing gurus suggest not weighing down the beginning with Backstory. I agree. I usually start in action/dialogue in the present, but lately I have a friend who thinks I don't explain enough about my characters to get the reader interested.

She said to look up successful romance writers and how they present characters. I went on Amazon and read several previews. For example, Bella Andre From This Moment On is entirely backstory in Chapter 1. She even has a flashback for the second scene. I'm confused because she's definitely successful and I wonder if readers or at least her readers like the backstory in Chapter 1.

What are your thoughts? I have all your books and am using the Writing Prompts one. Obviously I want to write a scene to show my character's motivation and current state, but I wonder if readers really mind.

Answer from me:
Yours is a universal question. How much backstory is too much and is little-to-none not enough?

First, I have to admit that my rather firm suggestion to not weigh down the beginning of a story with Backstory comes from two sources.

1) I developed a deep empathy for the dyslexic children I worked with back in the day I owned and operated a speech, language, learning clinic for children.

Struggling readers demonstrate the complexity of the entire reading experience. Understanding that words are made up of consonants and vowels that translate into letter symbols and decoding the words and understanding the meaning of those words and memorizing sight words and then grasping that a group of words followed by punctuation make sentences that make paragraphs and chapters and reading quickly enough to remember the meaning behind the words leads finally, when lucky, to comprehension.

Throw in all sorts of time jumps with prologues and flashbacks, flash forwards and memories and an already challenging task becomes a source of frustration rather than pleasure.

2) Working with writers, I've heard every different way you can think of to insert backstory information and most of them slow down the story. That is not to say that successful writers don't insert backstory up front. They do. All the time. You can, too.

That said... I continue to suggest not weighing down the beginning with backstory.

Supporting the beginning by offering just enough backstory with clear and engaging writing is fine. Giving more emphasis to the backstory than the front story gives me pause and I wonder, why not tell that story instead?

What I resist is inserting an actual flashback too early. A flashback is told in moment-by-moment action in real time in the past which is different from the front story time. It is the flipping back and forth in time early-on in a story that can cause confusion. Your goal in the first quarter of the book is to hook and ground the reader. A flashback often interferes with the successful completion of that goal.

P.S. I love knowing the little brown PW book is by your side! Thank you.


1) Track Your Plot at the Scene Level Webinar
Learn to Maximize the 7 essential plot elements in every scene (one of 7 essential plot elements in every scene is CONFLICT) from the comfort of your own home.

Knowing what to write where in a story with a plot reinforces daily writing practice and allows for more productivity in your writing. Whether writing a first draft or revising, if you falter wondering what comes next in a story with a plot, follow the prompts inThe Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing.

Today, I write.

To familiarize yourself with the basic plot terms used here and in the PW Book of Prompts:
1) Watch the plot playlists on the Plot Whisperer Youtube channel.
2) Read The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master
3) Fill out the exercises in The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories
4) Visit:
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