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Breeds of Backstory

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So recently I have been fleshing out the backstory to my current project. Not only that by I have been thinking of ways of cleverly weaving the details into the story proper. I prefer backstory that feeds directly into the main plot, rather than it exist in isolation. But I was having a bit o’ bother.

Suddenly, and while I was thinking of something else entirely (isn’t it always the way), the Tetriminos of writerly inspiration aligned, and four lines of writing impediment disappeared, and I had my answer! Tetris!

I was also reminded that I haven’t written much about backstory on this ‘ere blog o’ mine.

So, I got to thinking of the different types of backstory that exist with a view to describing them for your eyes. That’s as good a place to start as any. While you’re having a read, think about the background to your favourite stories. What category do they fit in?


tolkien's hobbit illustration

Artwork discovered last year for Tolkien's The Hobbit, drawn by the man himself!

All this has happened before

The backstory is basically a copy of what the current story will be or could be – the legend of a horrible beast that rose before and will rise again, the razing of a city at the hands of a powerful child (Akira). In these stories, the parts of the backstory that are slowly revealed all act as foreshadowing, and highlight the stakes and the threat.

The clues to the past have to be dished out slowly and skilfully. Giving away too much too soon risks giving away what will happen in the story proper, after all. But giving away too little means the reader is not aware of what is at stake, and your story loses tension.

Immediate backstory

There’s an old writing saying, which I’m sure you’ve heard a bajillion times – start late, and get out early. It’s the first bit we’re interested in here.

Immediate backstory is the name I’m giving to what happened just prior to your story starting. It may even be considered the true beginning to your story (even if it would be less interesting to read than the bit you actually start at, because you started late. You following this?)

Say you start in the middle of a rip-roaring action scene, dripping with awesome. There’s a reason your characters are there, shooting people in the head while doing backflips, but you don’t need to go through that. Instead you can let the reader know later, when everything has calmed down, with two or three well-placed sentences.

3,000 years of history

Now we’re into real world-building territory – the kind of thinking hard fantasy writers do when penning their five-book series of epics. The kind of thing that results in the most dire info-dumps.

This kind of work is a huge undertaking, so it pays to base it loosely on actual human history. Most fantasy writers plump for medieval history. This provides a lot of elements of the world prefabricated, so both the writer and reader can take certain things for granted – kingdoms, political games, armies, swords and metal armour and horses. Then you add orks and stuff, or a magic system.

Of course, you could be writing alternative history. Here, instead of taking just the themes of a historical period, you take actual history and then change something. This tends to go along the lines of, “what if the Nazis had werewolves?” You’d get an instant hook, that’s what.

In this case, or in the case of creating a historical novel (y’know, without the werewolves), research will provide you with your backstory, and all you have to do is fill in the gaps. This makes it sound easy, but of course that’s still an enormous amount of work. There is still the prickly issue of what to leave in, what to take out, what to elaborate on and what to make up wholesale. Your readers might be familiar with some of the details in your novel, especially if you’re dealing with a well-known period, but there must still be a balance in what is revealed – you can’t take your readers’ knowledge of events and characters for granted.

The rest

Those are the principle types of backstory that I could think of. But you can probably think of more, you clever bugger, so hit me up in the comments to berate me on my omissions. I can take it. Also, don’t forget that all types of backstory listed are not necessarily mutually exclusive – you may well have a couple in your story at once.