A Case for Wasting Time: Backstory

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As usual, I am up to greet the sun.

Today I am working on the bones of my next story, an erotic romance for Frisky Feminist Press’s coffee romance anthology call (I think I’ve mentioned this at least twice already, but I like to give credit where credit is due).

So far, I’ve spent the last hour researching the main character’s backstory: where she grew up, where she went to college, what program she transferred to, why she moved from Los Angeles to Seattle, and potential locations for her bakery/cafe (it’s a coffee romance anthology, after all). I love this part, before the tap-tap-tapping of keystrokes when the story is still green and gestating.

Ah, backstory.

I recently read an article titled, “Kill your Backstory” by Angela Booth. In it, she talks about the importance of keeping the story moving, all part of that “show, don’t tell” mantra that many newbie authors (myself included) spend so much time fretting over. Looking back on some of my earlier pieces, I cringe at the number of words I devoted to exposition and background, things I could’ve explained through more efficient means: a roll of the eyes, pursed lips, sweat beading upon the brow.

Of course, when you’re submitting a story chapter-by-chapter to an online writing site like Literotica, it can be difficult to know exactly where you’re going to end up. In my first novel-length story, I introduced a handful of new characters into chapter 4, devoting a couple of paragraphs to each in order to provide proper context. I tried to keep it brief, telling just enough to give readers an idea of who these characters were and then did my best to flesh them out via dialogue and behavior. My biggest fear was that they would feel arbitrary, because they kind of were—I had no idea they were going to appear until after I’d completed chapter 3, plus a very rough draft of chapter 4.

(Side note: I don’t think I’ll be posting anymore chapter-by-chapter stories after The Cabin unless I know exactly how it’s going progress out or have completed a first draft in its entirety. Live and learn.)

Towards the end of the article, Booth briefly states that writers can inject backstory into their work via action and conversation, though I would’ve appreciated a bit more info on exactly how she recommends authors go about this. She spent so much time stating what NOT to do that I felt a little let down by the dearth of practical application beyond, “You are reading, aren’t you?…Pay attention to how authors manage backstory in your genre.”

I’ll fully cop to getting swallowed up in backstory, albeit mostly for my own fantastical pleasure. In order for my characters to feel real, I have to have at least some idea of who they are and where they came from, even if very little of that ends up in the finished piece.

I recently read Crash Into You by Roni Loren, an erotic romance that delivers backstory almost like a nested narrative occurring alongside the main story. For the first two-thirds of the book, each chapter alternates between “then” and “now”, providing depth and relevant insight into character motivation. At first, I thought I might find the back-and-forth a little disjointing, but since the focus remained squarely on the relationship between the main characters, it stayed cohesive.

While I agree with Booth that backstory can indeed bloat one’s fiction, I also think it’s a necessary component to crafting a rich story. When meeting someone new, one of the first things we do is ask questions.

We exchange histories:

“So, what do you do for fun?”

“Well, I’m a really active person. I like to be outside.”

“Nice, I spent the latter half of yesterday at the beach.”

“Oh, that’s great! I used to visit the lake with my family every summer.”

“Yeah? Just for the day or…?”

“A few days, actually. We’d rent a campsite and spend the week kayaking and eating s’mores.”

“Oh, really? Let me tell you about the time I went “Death Camping” with friends just before Thanksgiving.”

Real people have backgrounds. Real people have histories. Real people have backstories. If we want our characters to feel real, we need to see them as people, and that means knowing how old they were when they had their first kiss; the first time they went “all the way” with their significant other (or dreamt about doing so with their gym teacher); the awful, terrible, horrible event they witnessed when they were twelve that has shaped them into the people they are on the page today.

Some of that will end up in our stories. A lot of it won’t, and that’s okay. The mental aerobics alone will help to strengthen our storytelling muscles and help us to become more compassionate, empathetic writers. In order to write authentically, we must set aside our own biases and prejudices to understand why our imaginary friends feel what they feel and do what they do.

All of that requires sinking our teeth into their backstories.

So, no, readers probably don’t need to know our character’s favorite ice cream flavor—unless we decide to send them into a panic every time someone mentions, “mint chocolate-chip”—but having a plethora of information to draw from when you want to add quirks or explore their reasoning is invaluable. We may even find ourselves making connections and subtle references to things that we hadn’t originally planned, resulting in depth and complexity.

And the best part? Our brains will automatically make these connections when appropriate. It’ll feel like magic, like finding a whole sand dollar on the beach or $20 in your coat pocket. All because we took the time to do the prerequisite work.

All because we bothered to daydream.


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5 thoughts on “A Case for Wasting Time: Backstory

  1. I recently started doling out a “scene-at-a-time” (actually, not even whole scenes) story, and yes, there’s a certain amount of pressure to finish once people have read the first bits and talked about how they want more. It didn’t start out that way for me — I thought it would be a single piece of flash fiction, just riffing on an idea in my head — but it started getting longer, so finally I just posted the first bit without really knowing anything about where it would end up. I still don’t; I’m working on part 3 right now. I probably would have dropped it, except for gentle nudges from readers wondering when it will come out.

    I also recently learned about the Frisky Feminist coffee anthology. I’ve been considering a submission for it myself, though I haven’t gotten serious with it yet, due to wanting to wrap up the aforementioned multi-part story first. I also think it may be rather competitive, with only 10-15 stories being selected, and some rather well-known published authors considering submissions (another Rachel, in fact, that I know of), but your writing is so tight, so expressive, your characters so well drawn and your plotting so clever, that it should be a snap for you.

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    1. Those gentle nudges from strangers on the internet can mean oh-so-much to us fledgling authors 😉

      As it turns out, the Frisky Feminist accepted one of my stories for their upcoming sex toy anthology and then the editor asked if I would write something for the coffee romance call. I have to admit, I’m glad they’ve pushed the date, as this one seems to be taking a bit more time in every respect, including backstory! You should definitely enter one. I plan on grabbing a cup of something hot and sitting down to read your work in progress sometime over the next few hours but from what I can tell, your prose is excellent (I think it lines up with a theory I have about romantic writing, but I’ll hold my tongue until after I’ve finished reading it). I think you’d have a good chance of being selected!

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  2. It’s a balancing act: too little background and your characters appear weak, too much and you overwhelm the reader with superfluous information.

    Figuring out an entire story before you begin submitting it one chapter at a time is definitely a good idea. Not only does it avoid awkward ‘oh I forgot to mention this important fact about such-and-such a character’ in the fourth chapter (which kind of bugged me about Robinson Crusoe), but it also helps create far more rounded characters.

    We may like to think that we’re all unique little snowflakes but the reality is that we behave in fairly predictable ways. Facts from our pasts will dictate present behaviour, and having those facts down on paper is priceless.

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    1. Couldn’t agree more.

      I find that the impatient parts of my brain tend to crave the instant gratification that comes from writing and posting a chapter at a time, but it’s a much more stressful process. Like you pointed out, it’s easy to forget or change your mind about how you’d like to present things. I can think of at least a dozen things I’d go back and change in The Cabin, but I suppose that’s what rewrites are for. Also, it sort of forces me to finish the damn thing because there’s the added pressure of people wanting to know how it ends, which is never a bad thing. Better to finish it and have it be crappy than perfect the first few chapters and never get to “The End”. It reminds me of the Jodi Picoult quote: “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

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