Backstory can become an unwieldy beast if one doesn’t keep it in check. Just imagine editor Maxwell Perkins sitting at his desk, whittling away 69,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s behemoth Look Homeward, Angel. The final manuscript still weighed in at a lofty 544-pages. Now there’s a writer who–well, just maybe–got a little carried away with backstory.
At the same time, not enough backstory can leave a reader confused and frustrated, especially if one is trying to puzzle out the motivation behind the character’s actions. For instance, Jay Gatsby’s obsession, and later love, for Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wouldn’t nearly be as tragic if we hadn’t known the little tidbit about Gatsby and Daisy briefly meeting before he was sent off to Europe to fight in the Great War.
[If you haven’t had the opportunity to read these novels, I suggest giving them a chance, if for no other reason than to see how backstory can either help or hinder.]
There are a few things to consider when it comes to deciding how much backstory is appropriate:
Does the backstory tie directly into the scene at hand?
If you find you’re spending more time explaining what has happened, instead of what is happening in the scene, you may want to dial it back. You don’t want to stifle the story’s forward momentum, or leave your reader stifling a yawn.
Does the backstory help provide a deeper understanding of what’s at stake for the main character?
Backstory needs to have purpose. As was pointed out with the Gatsby example above, knowing Gatsby met Daisy before going to war helps us understand where the origin of Gatsby’s obsession took root. In fact, it explains why he’s gone to such great lengths to impress her with his lavish parties that just happen to be directly across the bay from the Buchanan estate. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Now if we were told Gatsby enjoyed sailing and he spent his Saturday afternoons sailing the West Egg Bay—well, so what?
Is there an opportunity to dramatize the character’s past in some way, instead of dumping an information load on the reader?
The surest way to stop a story in its tracks is to interrupt the scene to explain why something is going on. Could one show the reader how the past affects the character by inserting a clue into the dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist? Could the main character have a moment of internal thought while driving to his father’s house? Could the character wake from a dream about the last time he went to a bar with his now deceased buddy? The main goal is to keep your characters active in the story so that the reader stays intrigued by what lies ahead.
Overall, you could say adding backstory is like adding a pinch of salt to a pot of chicken noodle soup. A little goes a long way. Give your readers the information they need to immerse themselves fully into your story, but don’t force their interest. Always, always keep them wanting to read more.