Seventh Commandment

Thou Shalt Not Indulge in Excessive Backstory

One way to create three-dimensional characters is to acknowledge that they have a past; that they have brought baggage with them into the timeline of the story. Characters that seem unaffected by their environment, their upbringing, or their past successes and failures can feel like plastic action figures being temporarily exploited to deliver plot to the reader. So backstory is helpful.

And although it’s much better to have a character with a history, there is a grave danger in clogging up your story with those deep past events. Consider three strategies that will prevent potential publishers from sinking into the quagmire of story elements that are not actually happening in your story:

– Limit backstory whenever you can. This includes characters drifting back into their personal memories and/or third-person narration that seeks to build knowledge about the character’s past actions or relationships. Be sensitively aware of how much attention you are asking from your reader for things that aren’t part of the current action of the story.

– Where backstory is required to prevent the reader from becoming confused or uninformed, do your best to position this form of exposition in a meaningful location. A memory that is spawned by a character who has just noticed an object they haven’t seen for years might help to justify temporarily leaving the present events of a story. Even better – have a past event described in dialogue by a minor character instead of a narrator explaining it or a main character merely thinking about it.

– Sometimes backstory comes in the form of flashback segments that have their own structural demarcation: separated by asterisks, printed in italics, or even having their own chapters. These clearly marked backstory segments seem to get away with more length, but always consider whether the quantity of the backstory is justified by its quality – that is, its usefulness to supporting the story’s primary timeline.

In the end, if the backstory is brief and seems related to the primary events being told by the story, your reader will be less likely to become distracted, impatient, forgetful, or bored.

Bottom Line for FQP Submissions:

If you submit a manuscript that reveals excessive use of backstory, you basically have two options: Resubmit at a later date with a more appropriate use of backstory, or work with one of FQP’s developmental editors to resolve the backstory issues (typically from $50 – $200.)

Ready for the Eighth Commandment? Click here.


Homepage for the Ten Commandments