Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: Backstory

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Monday, April 21, 2014


This is a very scattered blog post. Because the "log" part of "blog" comes from a time when blogs were more or less public, online substitutes for journals, and sometimes I like to use mine that way still.

Backstory is a very interesting thing. In case you're unfamiliar with the term, it's the part of the book that explains the things that happened before it. Like in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf tells Frodo about the Ring. It's a very old thing; the Greeks used to do it with choruses of singing people in plays.

When you learn how to write, particularly if you write fantasy or science fiction, one of the first things people are likely to tell you to do is to cut out extraneous backstory. Done poorly, it bogs down a narrative and confuses readers. This is especially true if it's not immediately relevant and triple-dog-dare true if the reader isn't sure who and what the story is about yet.

But a lot of authors use backstory pretty intensively nonetheless. I'm reading Among Others by Jo Walton for my local SF/F indie store's book club, and I just finished a whole long passage of backstory. I've noticed others in Neil Gaiman (American Gods) and Scott Lynch (Lies of Locke Lamora) recently as well. I've noticed it in a whole lot of other authors too, but I can't remember whom or in what books precisely.

And it has occurred to me that when backstory is done right, you can get away with an awful lot of it.

The trick is to focus on the story part of the word.

When backstory works best, it's structured as a little miniature story within the story, almost like flash fiction. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. There's an important event that starts it and an important event that finishes it. The people or things being discussed change in the middle in interesting ways. And ideally it tells you something about characters you already know about and has some kind of impact on the plot.

Of further note: once you've demonstrated that when you use backstory it has an impact on the plot once, readers will trust that anytime you use it from that point on it will become important later, unless you betray them.

Y'know, in case you were curious.

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