Backstory: How Much Do You Need When?

The past informs the present.
Photo by Julia Volk on

I love my critique group. We write such a wide variety of books from picture books to middle grade novels, TV, and nonfiction. One of the ladies started her story with a page of notes, backstory to help set the scene.

At the time, I knew that working this into a chapter wouldn’t work, but I couldn’t verbalize why. Then I saw this post on Janice Hardy’s blog. It was written by guest blogger Jenna Harte.

The short version is this – backstory helps your reader understand what is going on. Give the reader just enough to make sense of what is going on the story right now.

Ta-da! Isn’t that an amazing explanation?

When I open my middle grade novel, I open with the space ship waking up. I don’t reveal why the kids are in it. I don’t tell the reader about the kids’ hobbies. I don’t reveal where their parents are.

I start with the ship. That sets the tone. This book is science fiction. It is a little creepy and a little ominous and that’s what you need to know right this moment.

I don’t talk about the various family members that the kids are named after. That will come in later when Ada gets made when someone tries to give her a nickname. I don’t talk about why Jaxon refuses to chokes down a meal that includes protein powder although he hates it. No one needs to know about his training regimen just yet.

The trick is that as the author, I need to know all of this and much more. These kinds of details inform how your character will respond to the things that happen in the story. You need to know why they do what they do. It is how you keep their behavior consistent.

But your reader? Youe reader only needs to know enough to make sense of what is going on the story right now. (Ta da.)


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