Like several others here on the blog, I’ve spent a bit of time recently reading and judging contest entries. Some have been really good and some, like Jilly mentioned in her Give that Girl A Goal post, have suffered from an unfortunate lack of goal-motivation-conflict direction.
Sadly, a few have also suffered from “and here’s a big chunk of backstory”. That’s annoying enough in a full-length book, but deadly in a 50-page contest entry where the author has a short amount of story real-estate to make a strong impression.
It can be hard for a new writer to avoid weighing down their story with all of the details about the characters that they have dreamed up over time, just like it can be a challenge not to include all the fascinating facts that might have been dug up during the research phase of the story. As we were taught at McDaniel (and frankly in most wring craft classes), backstory is best when it is interwoven throughout the story with a light touch. Too much backstory, especially in big chunks, can slow the story down, break the tension, and cause your reader to lose interest.
Swaths of backstory aren’t just the purview of beginning writers, however. I recently read a new mystery story by a previously-unread-by-me author that was just swimming in it. The book was part of a popular series with more than a thousand reviews on Amazon and a 4.5 rating, so I had high expectations. The story got off to an okay start, but after about 75 pages or so, the current action stopped and there was about 100 pages of backstory. While it provided information about the heroine’s past, it was completely unnecessary. The relevant information could have been woven into the story with a few well-placed sentences here and there. Instead, it was a big, not particularly interesting slog of “this happened, and then this happened.” After about 20 pages I started to skim. By the time the story returned to the current action, I had lost interest and pretty much speed-read the rest of the story.
Unfortunate, as I had high hopes that this would be the beginning of an entertaining, new series.
While some of the online reviews of the book commented on the back story, the readers didn’t seem to be as bothered by it as I was.
The novel did lag a bit during the heroine’s back story. However, it was interesting to see where she came from and how she became a detective and what has shaped her own life.
The review below had me scratching my head at the “non-formulaic construction” comment and thinking “audacity” wasn’t quite the word I would have chosen.
A previous review mentioned that the construction of the plot involves a large section of exposition that is simply background and does not advance the story in any way. While this is quite true, I have come to like the author’s audacity in using a non-forumalic construction. While it might not pass muster at a writers workshop, the author constructs the story as she sees fit.
Many reviewers cut the author some slack, saying that since it was the first book in the series, it was perfectly reasonable to include a lot of setup and background information. That argument doesn’t really hold water for me since I generally expect books in a series to be able to stand on their own. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any series I’ve read where that wasn’t true. Some, I will admit, did resort to dreaded prologues to front-load background, but the information was also woven into the story, so one could have easily skipped them.
Obviously, considering the positive reviews this story/author got, there is a definite audience of readers that will happily consume large chunks of backstory. However, had I reviewed the story (which I didn’t, because obviously the author was not my catnip), it would probably have read something like the reader’s review below:
Interesting historical setting , zero character development, tons of unnecessary details.
So, how do you feel about back-story? Can you recommend any books where the author did a really good job of incorporating it into the main story?