The Curse of Backstory

Of all the story-writing sins committed by beginning writers, by far the worst consists of dumping a trailer-load of backstory on the unsuspecting reader. Fortunately, this error becomes clear almost immediately, at least to the reader. As an editor, this practice not only makes me cringe, it makes me wonder if the writer has ever actually opened a novel and read it. And by novel, I mean one written by someone with an actual story to tell, who can differentiate between the stuff that interests readers, and the stuff that puts ’em to sleep.

Believe me, it’s easy to tell the difference — just read a bad novel, and God knows there are plenty of them to choose from. Fortunately the worst aren’t in print. As much as I bad mouth the Big Five, the one positive thing I can say about the efforts of the “traditional” agent/editor/publisher/marketing cabal, is that they give a thumbs down to the truly bad along with the potentially good.

I firmly believe most novels submitted to agents, editors and publishers aren’t worthy of being put into print. Most need a significant amout of work just to become readable, and most agents and editors aren’t willing to put in that kind of time. I don’t blame them; it’s work. I know, because many of those writers come to me for help. I get to see what they’ve done, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why their manuscripts received a “Thanks, but no thanks,” assuming they got any feedback at all. That’s a different rant which I’ll discuss at a later date.

Along comes Amazon, and the old modus operandi is dumped on its head; Amazon made self-publishing not only economically feasible, but relatively easy. Print-on-demand utterly clinched the deal. Suddenly, anyone who could copy and paste their text into a computer-generated template could format an honest-to-God paperback book. The e-book versions were even easier. And as quick as a red neck can learn to say, “Watch this; somebody hold my beer!” crappy books flooded the market.

Please understand, I’m NOT saying all self-published books are crap. Far from it. I’ve published quite a number of them myself, and they’ve been well received. And, I’ve helped dozens of other people to produce books of their own. But they all have a degree of polish that’s often lacking in self-published work. In short, they’ve been edited.

And one of the first things I encourage (nag, berate, argue, comment, filibuster) is the elimination of backstory. If it’s truly worthwhile, it can be sprinkled in as needed. But a wholesale dumping of background material is almost never appropriate. I say “almost” not because I know of a case where it worked, but because I’m sure there’s probably one out there somewhere. I just haven’t seen it yet.

If you’re just starting your writing carreer, you can save yourself an astonishing amount of grief, to say nothing of time and energy, simply by eliminating every particle of backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary. Trust me when I say no one cares about Uncle Doober’s bowel issues, or whether or not Gramma Grundy ever used self-rising flour. What we do want to know is how Uncle Doober got elected Mayor and/or how Gramma Grundy eventually poisoned him. That’s where the story is!

That’s what someone, someday, might make into a movie.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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6 Responses to The Curse of Backstory

  1. polinto says:

    Backstory like commas–use sparingly–not like sprinkles on donuts. Some writing teacher taught me that.

  2. Hey! Watch this, hold my book! Agree that most of the back story is unnecessary, however Hemingway and Orwell often used a “bit” of it to weave their “atmosphere” of despair and or heroic hopelessness. I would think it might be OK to “Sprinkle” as polinto says to maybe set the scene or give a reader a brief sense of atmosphere. I dunno, give me my book back!

  3. Betty says:

    Loved reading, as far as I could, the example you provided. Surely, no one, not even a beginner, could do that – well, maybe so.

    • joshlangston says:

      Okay, I admit, it took a bit of skill to pull that one off. I thought, briefly, about using an excerpt from something one of my students wrote, but I didn’t want to embarrass them. Better to embarrass myself!

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