Ask an Editor: How Much Backstory Is Too Much?
“I am writing a novel which I expect to be about 20 chapters. I am finding that my inciting incident occurs in chapter 4 following 3 chapters of backstory. There are then 3 more chapters of backstory before the inciting incident is addressed. Does this sound like a poor idea that may lead to no one sticking with my story?”
This is a great question, iaWilds! It can be really difficult to know how much backstory you need to include for a given character and how to balance that with moving the plot forward.
However, before I get into that, judging by your first sentence, it looks like you are still in the process of writing the first draft. So, my first piece of advice is to FINISH WRITING THE BOOK! At this stage, you just need to get the story out and into the world. Once it’s safely on the page (or in the word document), THEN you can start worrying about revision questions like: Is there too much backstory? Am I going to lose my readers? And that’s when the rest of this blog will hopefully be helpful! But for now, try really, really hard to channel the NaNoWriMo spirit and just write. Don’t go back and revise, just finish the story. It’s much, MUCH harder to fix something when it’s not finished.
Okay, so now let’s fast forward a bit and assume that you’ve finished your novel and (after taking some time to celebrate, sleep, and recharge) you are ready to start the revision process.
The first thing to look at, now that you know where your book ends, is the beginning. This is the very first thing that your readers are going to see. What does your beginning tell them about your story? Does it introduce the character? Is the character being active? Or, does your beginning introduce your world, and do you have a lot of legends and setup?
Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first chunk of the movie has NOTHING to do with the Ark. But, it includes key iconic moments for the character. The beginning of Raiders introduces us to Indiana Jones in a very memorable way that tells us exactly who this guy is, and which tells us that this is a movie filled with action, traps, and surprises.
So, the fact that your inciting incident for your main plot doesn’t happen until Chapter 4, is not necessarily a dealbreaker. But, that only works if you have your character doing something else that is active and pulls the reader in. You need to get the character on the page as fast as possible and make the reader care about what they’re doing. You also need to let the reader know what type of book this is. If you’re writing an action story, there should probably be some running or punching or something in the first little bit. If it’s a romance, then I want to see some pining or longing or hot possible romantic leads in Chapter 1. And if it’s a horror story, then there better be something creepy going on. Something needs to be not right right up front.
However, as you go back and revise, if you read your first four chapters, and they’re all backstory, it’s facts about the world, setting the stage and telling me the character’s entire family history, then you might want to consider cutting that, or at least breaking those four chapters up and working them back into the story later in smaller chunks. Maybe if you need to know a legend about your main character’s grandfather to set up a special MacGuffin for later in the plot, then maybe as part of a relationship-building moment between two of your characters, your main character can tell the legend in their own words, which will a) get the information you need across, b) show that they trust the other character with part of their story, and c) tell you more about your main character in their attitude and their reactions to the story.
So again, without reading your book, it’s hard to give you a definitive answer. Unfortunately, book publishing isn’t like math. There is no formula for telling a perfect story. Your story is going to be unique, but the thing that is universal is that readers have very short attention spans when picking up a new book. You’re basically only guaranteed the first page. So make sure there’s something cool on that first page!
Got a question for our editors? Let us know in the comments!