Tuesday, March 10

Day Ten: Balance the Backstory

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Welcome to Day Ten of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This second stage is all about getting our characters up to speed. We’ll be looking at ways to flesh out our story people, finding the right balance between description, backstory, and infodumping, tightening our POV, and putting the heart and soul into the novel.

The more fleshed out our characters are, the more likely it is we’ll drop their backstory into the novel (after all, we spent all that work on them, right?). But too much backstory can steal the mystery from our novel, and bog the plot down.

Today, we’ll focus on making sure our backstory is both necessary, and entertaining for our readers.

If you made notes in your editorial map on scenes with too much backstory (or not enough), start with those. If not, then pick your scenes and go through them one by one, looking for backstory.

1. Determine and Identify What Backstory Has to be There

Despite the countless advice that says “eliminate all backstory,” backstory is not a bad thing on its own. It’s only when it hurts the story that it becomes a problem. Look at the backstory in your scenes (especially in the first 25% of the novel) and decide what information is vital to understanding that scene and what isn’t. Ask:
  • Does this information help readers understand what’s going on in this scene?
  • Will knowing this information hurt the tension or mystery of the scene (or story)?
  • What’s lost in this scene if you took the backstory out?

Revision Red Flag: One of the problems with backstory is that we often feel readers “needs to know” this information to “really get” the character. But in reality, wondering about this history is often what keeps them reading and pulls them deeper into the novel.

2. Eliminate, Move, or Revise Unnecessary Backstory

Once you’ve identified the backstory that isn’t necessary to a scene, you have three choices—cut it, move it to where it is relevant, or make it relevant in that scene.

3. Revise Backstory to Show, Not Tell

Finally, take a look at the remaining backstory and ask: is it showing or telling the information? Backstory is a common place for told prose to sneak in as we explain the history and why it matters to the character at that time. Backgrounding the backstory so it affects a character’s behavior can be a more more interesting way to handle it. For example, if your protagonist has had troubles with the police, then you might show her avoiding an officer on the street, or taking special care to not let an officer see her face. Readers will wonder, “why is she avoiding the cops?” and be intrigued to read on. If you tell them right away that the protagonist has a warrant out for her arrest (or worse, what it’s for), then there’s no mystery any more.

(Here are more articles on backstory)

Problems Found?

If you’re not sure if the backstory is necessary or something to cut, try asking these questions:

How does it affect the current scene goal? If it has no bearing on what the protagonist is trying to do in that scene (either directly or by affecting a decision made) then odds are it can go. Backstory that affects motivation feels natural because it has a place in the story. It matters to the character and to the things readers care about.

Were any of the scene's characters involved? If so, what was their role? How do they feel about it now? How does it motivate their actions and choices now? If they're not playing a role in the scene, there’s probably no need to add backstory about them.

Why do you want it in that scene? Sometimes our subconscious is trying to tell us to add something to a scene, but we’re not sure why. If you feel a bit of backstory needs to be there, take a few minutes to figure out why. Often, the backstory is key to how the character feels in the current scene and what she’d do or say.

Backstory isn't just about the character's history, it’s about the experiences that shaped her and makes her act the way she does. Mention the history that's driving a character to act, not the “stuff” that happened in her past. Pick what's important both to the character and to the story itself.

After today’s session, we should have eliminated any unnecessary backstory and cleaned up the backstory that needs to stay. Next, we’ll move on to focusing our POV and tightening our internalization.

Tomorrow’s Step: Focus the Point of View

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. This is a hard one for me. I don't think I have info dumps, but I've often revised to add dribbles of backstory details early on because just because I could slip it in easily, and it seemed to help ground things. But I had an agent who recently said what it really did was explain things, which left her with nothing to wonder about. When I went back, I could see what she meant. But that balance between "will this leave them wondering" vs "will holding off on this detail leave them confused" still seems to elude me. Is there a way of thinking about this that I'm missing? *sigh*

    1. Sadly, no, it's a matter of training your ear to catch when you're explaining. There are some red flag words, like realized, knew, figured, made, because of, since, etc. that you see around a tellish explanation, and you can search for those. The explanation lines also tend to feel like a summary of what the scene is about or what the idea of that section is about, so if you get a summarized vibe, there's a chance it's explaining.