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Monday, August 26, 2013

Axing the Backstory

Ah, a round of applause for the backstory, all of that information that you, the writer, painstakingly put together to understand what makes your characters tick. If it weren’t for all those events from the past, the people in your book wouldn’t be where they are at the start of the story. However, sometimes you fall head-over-heels in love with your backstory, excited to impart every miniscule detail, because surely the reader will adore it as much as you do.  You decide to showcase it. Why not tell all about what happened in the past before the hero and heroine go on their journey? It deserves to be put there at the front of the book, right? Not!


If there is anything that signals a newbie, it is the writer’s dump at the beginning of a novel—one big pile of doo-doo. I judge a lot of contests, and, in every one I judge, at least one of the entries has pages of backstory at the front of his novel. So, I do what I always do. I try with tender loving care to explain to the writer that his first fifteen pages need to be axed—whacked—eliminated—lost. For an inexperienced writer, the thought of losing five thousand words of his manuscript is more than he can bear. Why, he’ll be lucky if he can make his determined 50-60,000 word count (unless he’s one of those who ends up with a 220,000-word opus that could have been told in 70,000 tightly written words—you know who you are).


My co-writer and I hacked off one hundred pages of the first romance book we wrote. Was it all at one time? Shoot, no. I mean, it was our first book and the writing was cherished, every phrase labored over with tender loving care and long hours of BICHOK (Butt in chair hand on keyboard for those who don’t know). No, we did it the painful way, sort of like cutting off a finger at the first knuckle and working your way down in segments until you severed the whole hand. That’s what it felt like.


It’s not going to be easy, but the book will be oh, so much better if you lose the stuff. Most of it will come out over the course of the book anyway, but will be better off for being filtered in over many pages.


I’m better at this than I used to be, but do as I say and not as I do. I’ve given you an example of what backstory looks like at the beginning of a book and then what it looks like after it’s removed. The original opening of my novella, Frozen Assets, was written seven years before I returned to that story idea and completed it. Here’s what it looked like then:



1889, New York City

“Dead, are you sure?” William Davis’ words came out barely louder than a whisper. His head hung in defeat.

“Completely. I sent Robert to find her myself. Seems your Julianna was ill, consumption. Her son died at her side of the same awful disease.” Millicent was pleased with how well she played the part of the sympathetic wife. Her nails dug into the lounge. Despite the fact his mistress and bastard were involved.

“I can’t say that I’m dreadfully sorry, William, but you did deserve to know what became of them. I was determined to help. Now you know.”


Published book’s opening:

Caleb Cash stared upward, panic seizing him as the huge blob of frozen matter exploded. Swirling crystals showered down.  Icicles stabbed the snow, gouging the earth, piercing it like daggers. Blinding snow raged. Stinging needles slashed the army-issued blanket with a relentless rain of spikes.  Pulling his coat off, he threw it over his head. Ablaze, a bright green light flashed, its blast rocketing it toward the cave. The red hot ball of flaming ash surged from the sky, prepared to claim the landscape. He turned and ran inside the cave. Sizzling heat crackled in his ears, and exploded through the opening, bent on destruction.


One starts with his father when Caleb is a child. The second one starts with action when Caleb is an adult—the action that takes Caleb on his journey. Do you see the difference? I’d love to hear your stories about losing the doo-doo, uh, I mean backstory.


Bobbye Terry writes mystery/suspense, romance, fantasies and dystopian fiction and also inspirational nonfiction. Nothing Ever Happens in Briny Bay, a compilation of the Briny Bay novellas, was released in print by Turquoise Morning Press during July. Like Humans Do and Like Demons Do were also released that month, both written under the pen name, Daryn Cross. For more about Bobbye, visit her at,  and


Rose Anderson said...

Great post Bobbye. I have old stories waiting on my return and boy oh boy will they be smaller when I get done chopping. We all improve with time and each book completed. I'm almost afraid to look at them!

My personal reader's peeve is having every single movement explained. If the hero is making coffee, there's no need to show the entire process -- lifting the lid, opening the coffee can etc. Having made hundreds of pots of coffee in my lifetime, just telling me he's making coffee will do. Leave me something to imagine.

Cara Marsi said...

Great post, Bobbye. We all make this mistake at first. And I've also judged my share of stories that begin with backstory. I love your examples.

I think it was more accepted at one time to start books with lots of backstory. The old Harlequin Presents books did this all the time. I'm reading one now from 1994 by one of my favorite Presents authors. The first 20 pages are backstory and introspection. I went with it because the writing was so good and I like this author, but the story really began 20 pages later when the heroine got to Scotland and met the hero. If this had been a newbie and not an established author I wonder if Harlequin would have published it with so much backstory. Would I have continued to read if it was written by an author I didn't know?
I think we've all gotten used to stories that jump start, and we don't have the patience or time to go through 20 pages of introspection and backstory.

Sandy said...

I related to your post, Bobbye. I remember when I had pages of back story. lol Now, I have to watch that I don't repeat myself somewhere in the story, or in several places. Grin!

jean hart stewart said...

Great post and something I know well but find hard to live by. Sometimes writing is damned hard.

Melissa Keir said...

Wonderful post and so timely. It really shows the importance of sprinkling in the backstory throughout, rather than giving it a dump and the beginning.

Bobbye Terry said...

Thanks for all the replies! I agree with you Rose, that some people get carried away with what I call stage instructions. And yes, I could make coffee in the pitch dark. :) I don't need a cooking lesson.

It does amaze me how many published authors still dump at the beginning. It helps to remember always to start in the middle of action.

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