Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Backstory Is For Writers, Not Readers

The other day I was reading a medieval fantasy, and even before I hit the first plot point, the author launched into a multi-page explanation of the gods of that world, the different religions, and how the various races—elves, dwarves, men, goblins, etc—came to be. He tried to prevent it from becoming an infodump by revealing this information via dialogue, letting one character explain it to another, but it was still a pace-killing infodump. Now infodumps are rarely a good thing, but they can be especially painful when it’s clear we’re not going to need any of this information by the time the story’s over.

Why would an author dump all this information on us if we didn’t need it? Because he spent many a night entertaining himself by coming up with all these interesting nuggets of information, and by god, he wanted to make sure we had the chance to enjoy them too.

It reminds me of my old Dungeons and Dragon days, when those adventure modules you purchased included all sorts of backstory. I’m sure the designer of those modules had fun inventing the intricate backstories for these worlds, and I’m sure many of the dungeon masters who purchased these modules enjoyed reading the details, but 99 times out of a 100, none of those details ever trickled down to the players actually adventuring through the game. I mean, what’s the point in including notes about the unsavory hygienic habits of a long dead demigod that no one has heard of and doesn’t show up in the game?

Heck, one of my crit partners once gave me his story bible for the story I was critting for him. This tome had all sorts of info on how the races came to be, how many wars they’d fought, anecdotal stories about legendary figures, explanations as to how the languages came about… All information that would have given even the sternest of dungeon masters a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but none of which had anything to do with the story he was writing.

It’s important for the writer to know the backstory of their worlds. It’s helpful for keeping the facts consistent. It may even help to explain the motivations of one or more of the characters. But if the reader doesn’t need to know the details, they probably shouldn’t be burdened with it.

Backstory is for writers, not readers.


P.S.  Hey, I love me some good backstory, just find a reason to make it relevant, okay?


  1. I totally agree and isn't that one of the first lessons we learn as a writer: backstory is for the writer not the reader (unless it's relevant and moves the story forward). I get irritated at padding and I'm sure it's because the publishes demand a certain word count. I recently read one of my favourite authors new novels and he spent a whole chapter tells me about the nitty gritty of the weaponary his mercenries were carrying. Get to the fight - does the good guy get killed? Who cares what type of gun they're using. In the end people who want to know that information would be reading a different type of book. I learned nothing - I just skipped past those pages :) Great post, Ken!

  2. Agreed! Heck, sometimes I don't even need it...

  3. Everyone loves a well developed world, but yeah, it's like writing a historical story. The author does so much research about super cool things that they want to include every teeny tiny detail...and it can become overwhelming. So see, it's not just in fantasy. Balance is the key, eh?

  4. I feel the same about research. It may take me hours of digging to feel like I have all the info, but I only share what touches my story. :-)

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  5. Truth. If you're that excited about this world you've created, write a separate encyclopedia of that world and have it as a PDF for readers to download IF they happen to have the same level of interest. Most people won't, but a few might. And that way the writer has gotten it out of his/her system. Hopefully.

  6. As a writer, I think having all that backstory info gives me more confidence that I understand the world I'm writing about. But readers don't need to hear about it all.

  7. Nothing turns me off faster than a history/religion lesson in a novel. If its relevant, it will come up naturally in the story. If it's not, then it remains the underlying framework that we just don't see, but which nevertheless supports the story.

  8. I know I'm guilty of both extremes. I'll either jump in with all the details or I'll give none with the writing style of, "You'll catch up." The latter works great for pace but man do I have a habit of confusing the heck out of people. *sigh* Someday, I may master that balance.