How Important is Backstory?

I’m currently wrestling with this question because I have on my hands over sixty thousand words that don’t fit in the novel I’ve been trying to write. One of the many reasons the creative life is fraught with angst: you can work hard for months only to have to scrap everything you did. After keeping a steady word count for months, I have to stop, have a good look at what I’ve done, and possibly retool.

Not knowing where to start with my current novel, I decided to write my character’s story from the beginning and see where that took me. I started with his early life and, after fifteen thousand words, figured out that story wasn’t right for my novel. So I jumped to the next bit and spent a whole month writing twenty thousand words that could be something, but still wasn’t right for the novel. I did the same again last month, writing twenty five thousand words and – nope, still not my novel. Dammit! At least I can take heart knowing Mark Twain did the same thing.

I’m at a crossroads where I can either keep going with this exercise, getting all my character’s backstory written until I eventually stumble into the novel, or I can cut it off here and spend a month plotting to figure out what stories actually need to go in the novel and only write those. I’ve already weighed the pros and cons of both, so I’ll sum up:

If I keep going with the backstory, I’ll have my character’s whole prior life to draw from, probably enriching the main story in ways I can’t foresee. But I also know I’m stalling because I don’t feel ready to tackle the novel – is that a good or bad thing? It’s not like I have concrete deadline. Any stories I do include in the novel will have to be rewritten completely because it will be colored by the context of his current experience. Continuing along these lines means pumping out more verbiage for the scrap heap. However, a few of these stories might be worth turning into novellas, so it’s not all wasted effort.

If I quit writing backstory and get on with the novel, I do have a couple short scenes in the framing story to use as a jumping off point. Everything I write from there will be more relevant and automatically shaded in context. It means less work rewriting, but I also risk losing depth the story could have if I knew all the backstory lying below the surface. Not doing that groundwork also means potential continuity issues, because the novel demands being told in a non-linear fashion. The original reason for writing the story in its proper order first was so every puzzle piece would fit together when I mixed them up later.

So now I have a big choice to make. Do I make the big leap into my novel in a desperate attempt to crank out a first draft by the end of the year, or do I continue plodding along until I reach my novel naturally? Part of my anxiety comes from running into more than a plot hole – a great big information gap in the linear story that I’m scrambling to fill because nothing I write later will make sense otherwise. I could shrug and say who cares, but – no, actually I can’t. My brain won’t let me get away with that. I guess I’m stuck filling the gap and writing a crapload of exposition for my story bible until the world I’ve created once again makes sense to me. Sigh…

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

6 thoughts to “How Important is Backstory?”

  1. I go by the flashlight theory: a character walking the story line can shine a flashlight in any direction, and there’s just enough backstory there that it looks as if there’s a whole world. But if you started going in that direction, you’d come to the end of the fleshed out parts pretty quickly.

    Basically, you can write an infinite amount of backstory – and I don’t want to. I’m always surprised, though, that when I need to work something out because I’m getting a need for a particular piece, it seems to work. I keep very detailed calendars and event timelines; maybe that is in the back of my mind.

    Everything contributes – but you only need a few telling details. I try not to create too much more than that.

    You can end up with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit – and The Silmarillion (a compendium after his death of all the bits and pieces) – or you can write more novels. It is a choice. Would you rather be Tolkien or Heinlein? A single huge story takes a lot of your time – if it’s important enough to you (it has been to me), you will write well in a small number of novels. If it doesn’t appeal to you to spend a significant proportion of your adult life on a single novel – there’s your answer.

    You have to know where you want to go, before you decide which bus to get on. Unless you don’t care where you go.

    1. I guess I’d rather be Tolkien in that regard. If I were only writing one novel, I’d probably obsess less over these details, but I’ve been creating a world and characters to fill a dozen novels or more. I’m laying the foundation for a planned trilogy, and am finding more stories to compliment them in the process. That sixty thousand words of backstory could end up becoming a set of novellas because I found proper story arcs within them. They’re just not the novel I thought I was writing at the time.

      1. You need a Like! button.

        Sounds like you already made up your mind – and that’s the most important part of the whole thing.

        Now go cut the moose up into usable-size pieces and stick them in the freezer.

        Then get a move on – you have some writing to do.

        1. Yeah, I’ve been agonizing over it for a week. Sometimes arbitrary deadlines can be more a hindrance than a help, like wanting to finish the first draft on that novel by the end of the year. It was a hard decision putting it down for only a month or so to rework the story’s foundation.

          1. I have to do that next: as soon as the pdf is done, and Createspace has a proof copy winging its way to me, I have to find whatever it takes to tackle Book 2 – of which I have an incredibly rough draft, a firm hold on the story, and a lot of cleaning up of the structure to do BEFORE I start writing, because I only want to do that once. I have to get the calendar rock solid – it bit me last time, and it was NOT fun fixing it when all the other pieces were in place.

            Time spent cleaning is important: otherwise you’re working on sections you don’t end up keeping.

            But you wouldn’t start putting up curtains until the windows were in place, would you? Thinking about what kind of curtains, yes, but not putting up the rods.

            Without a solid foundation, you’re building on sand.

            1. Exactly. I consider all I’ve been doing outlining in a way, because I still don’t have the story straight in my head. Fumbling my way into it ends up a big mess most of the time.

Comments are closed.