For the next few weeks, Fiction Editor Joe Ponepinto will offer thoughts on some of the issues that arise as he reads short story submissions, with suggestions on how to improve them.
By far the most common criticism I have when commenting on fiction submissions in our Feedback Option is that of too much or unnecessary backstory. The scenario is often the same: a decent to excellent opening scene that begins to establish setting, character, and stakes, and then an abrupt detour into arcane facts such as where the characters grew up, went to school, how they first met, came to work at their current occupation, or other trivia.
Unfortunately, the overuse of backstory seems to have become an acceptable practice in fiction, even in stories published in some well-regarded literary journals. But it is not good fiction. As a reader I find such a tactic pulls me out of the momentum of the story. As an editor I find it lacking in creative skill. Among other faults it’s didactic and tedious; often it’s a shortcut, a cheat to create character sympathy, rather than allowing that sympathy to develop as the narrative relates the action.
Here’s what using backstory says to this editor:
- I don’t trust the reader to get what I’m writing about. This is understandable to a certain extent. In writers’ groups I’ve been involved in, a common criticism from some readers is that s/he wanted to know more about the character’s past. It’s a request from readers who may not have the patience or depth of understanding to follow a well-written and challenging story. Although there are some people who just want everything told to them, as a writer (especially a writer whose work may grace TLR’s pages), you can’t let that amateur assessment overly influence your writing.
- I don’t trust my writing to convey the story. There’s a legend about Anton Chekhov and how he used to receive manuscripts from hopeful writers seeking his advice. Sometimes he would simply remove the first half of the book or story and return the rest to the writer, saying, “Your story starts here.” He knew, instinctively, that new writers almost always tried to cram in explanations and histories for their characters’ actions. The point is that effective fiction does all that without being didactic—it relies on inference, providing clues within the narrative that point to character backgrounds in a way that’s natural to the characters’ existence.
- I’m the author and my voice is more important than my characters’. Authorial fiction went out with the Victorians. Need I say more?
- I’m too lazy a writer to work the background details in naturally. Your Creative Writing teacher may have mentioned this: writing is hard work!
If you’re wondering how to tell when you’re overdoing backstory, I’ve got a few tips that I use when revising my own writing:
- You’ve listed a series of facts about your character(s) that sound like they came from an obituary. For example: When John was eighteen he enlisted in the Coast Guard. He met his future wife, Jenny, before his first assignment.
- You’ve used a form of “to be” in most of the sentences in a paragraph. John was from New York. He was one of three brothers of high school age. They were all on the football team. In addition to being really poor writing, these sentences indicate no action, just pre-existing conditions.
- You’ve segued from the previous scene for no good reason. Chances are the scene wasn’t complete, but you didn’t know where it should go next, and so to keep writing, you fell back on boring background info. Go back. Dig deeper and mine that scene for all its worth. That’s where the real emotion is hidden.
- You’ve fallen into the backstory corollary, the “As You Know, Bob” Syndrome, in which characters tell each other things they already know for the reader’s edification.
Some suggested remedies:
I will admit that some backstory is almost always necessary in a story to ensure continuity and meaning. The key is to determine how and when to deliver it. When you’ve identified unnecessary backstory in your work, consider trying one of these techniques to expunge it:
- Filter your story through the characters. Instead of writing as the author, write what happens through the characters’ perceptions. This involves believing in your characters so much that they become real people, and the story you are telling becomes theirs, not yours. What do the characters do and think? In a moment of stress, is it natural for your character to recall where she went to school? (Probably not, icyww.) Revise with the idea that the characters already know the information you’re trying to dump, and so it doesn’t need to be dumped. If you keep this in mind as you write, the background information will find a way to surface as the characters move through the story, because it becomes necessary for them to recall it.
- Consider a different starting point. If the information that reads as backstory is really so important that you have to shoehorn it in at the beginning, maybe the story needs to start at an earlier time, when that information is relevant.
- If you must use backstory in your work, then at least be creative with it. Look for opportunities that lend themselves to referencing background. Consider turning it into a flashback so it becomes a scene and not exposition.
- Use it sparingly. Deliver it only when the reader can’t go on without knowing that information. You’ll be amazed at what readers can figure out just through character action and dialogue.
Bottom line: when I encounter blatant backstory in a piece of fiction, I am immediately wary of the writer’s craft, regardless of previous publications. It almost always results in a rejection.