That’s So Yesterday: The Perils of Backstory

by James Thayer

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

The literary agent Donald Maass says, “The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the main conflict in place quickly enough.  In fact, it is the primary reason I reject over 90 percent of the material I receive.” 

A chief culprit: backstory.  Too much backstory too early is a manuscript prospect-killer.  Nothing contained later in a manuscript can overcome backstory delivered too early because agents and editors won’t read beyond the backstory. 

What is backstory?  If the first page of a novel begins on August 1, anything that happened before August 1 is backstory.  How the hero got into chapter 1’s terrible fix, the villain’s early evil scheming, the next door neighbor’s childhood bullying, Meghan breaking his heart when he was eighteen, his weapons training at Quantico, even July 31’s weather: all of this is backstory.

A successful story is like a clock.  It moves forward.  Albert Zuckerman says, “The one aspect of a blockbuster novel’s structure that usually keeps the reader turning the pages more than any other is pace—storytelling that moves relentlessly forward, constantly repositioning the characters and posing ever new dramatic question in the reader’s mind.” 

Readers expect movement toward resolution of the conflict.  They want the new, not the old.  They want to know what will happen, not what has happened.  Over-the-shoulder backward glances stop the novel’s momentum.   

Here is an outline of the first scene of a novel, done the wrong way.  After a promising beginning, backstory jerks the forward momentum to a halt.

Chapter 1 outline: 

A.  Allison opened the closet door, and found a rifle inside.  She had never seen the weapon before.

1.   She had driven her daughter Amanda to school that morning early for Amanda’s choir practice.

2.      Allison’s husband Eric was a hunter, mostly deer.  He had grown up in Michigan, and spent most every weekend in the woods with his father.

3.     She and Eric had met in junior high school, and neither of them remembered a time when they didn’t know each other.

4.     Eric was an orthodontist.  He had graduated from the Michigan State, and went to the University of Michigan School of Dentistry for both his DDS and his MS.

5.     Their daughter Amanda was their first-born.  Amanda was going to have a sister in seven months.  Allison’s tummy had begun to show.

B.  A creaking sound came from the kitchen door.  Someone was coming into the house.  She called, “Eric?”  No answer. 

Here is that same story, done the right way: 

Chapter 1 outline: 

A.  Allison opened the closet door, and found a rifle inside.  She had never seen the weapon before.

B.  A creaking sound came from the kitchen door.  Someone was coming into the house.  She called, “Eric?”  No answer.

But what about all the stuff about her daughter and meeting Eric in junior high school and deer hunting?  Whether this information is important for understanding the story isn’t the point.  The point is that in this outline, the information about the past—the backstory—is given way too early.  The promising story—a woman hears a creepy sound downstairs—has stopped cold.  So has the agent and publisher’s interest. 

The urge to deposit backstory far too early in a novel is strong.  One of the reasons is that as we have plotted and researched our story, we have thought and thought about our characters and their histories, spinning out their backgrounds, which is a lot of fun.  Immense satisfaction can be derived from creating a compelling, sympathetic, fascinating character.  “I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my character, for there is little in fiction more rewarding than to see real people interact on a page,” says James Michener.    

So as we’ve put together our story, we’ve come up with lots of explanations for why our characters behave as they will in the story, explanations from childhood, from early romances, from mentors, from odd experiences, from lots of things.  What could be more rewarding than inventing a background, which probably includes all those great things we wished had happened to us but never did, and some things we are intensely grateful never happened to us. 

And then, after all the work and creativity we put into this history—after our act of profound creation; a fictional character in all her manifestations—the truth is sometimes hard to accept, but it is a truth nonetheless: readers are not much interested.  Backstory is almost always more interesting to the writer than to the reader. 

The reason: readers want to move forward with the story.  Anything that happens now—in front of the reader in real time as she reads—is intrinsically more interesting than things that happened before the story’s “now.”   

This is such an important concept—early backstory is a prospect-killer for a manuscript—that another example might be useful.  Here, at the beginning of the novel, two fellows are hanging on the side of a cliff, and things have nicely started to go wrong (nicely for the reader, not for the climbers).  Notice when the backstory starts:


            “Did you jam the bolt anchor in?” Burkhart called.  “I’m slipping.”  He gripped the granite ledge—not more than two inches wide—his fingers sinking into the moss.

            Thirty feet above him, Monroe yelled, “The anchor is slipping out.  Don’t move. I’m pulling out the hammer.”

              Burkhart looked up the granite face at his partner.  “I’ve taken the weight off the line, but I can’t hold on here much longer.” 

One of Burkhart’s hands was white with chalk.  A belaying glove was on the other hand.  Sweat seeped down his forehead.  Spring-loaded cams, nuts, and quickdraws hung from his harness.  Monroe’s foot loosened granite pebbles that peppered Burkhart’s helmet.

Burkhart was tight against the cliff face, the toes of his rubberized climbing shoes jammed into crevices.  The boulder-strewn valley floor was three hundred feet below them, straight down.

He yelled, “Hurry, Ron.  My fingers are giving out.”

This was Dan Burkhart’s third climb of this precipice, but the first time he had attempted the Devil’s Tail route, a class 5 ascent.  Burkhart had begun rock climbing when he was fourteen years old on a wager from his father.  Burkhart had been begging his family for a dog, and his dad had told him that if Dan could climb Mount Baldy at Lehi State Park, and reach the top, the family would get a dog.  Burkhart spent a month learning climbing techniques, and by the time he had conquered Mount Baldy, he had forgotten about a dog.  When he graduated from high school, he had already climbed the Fire and Ice Face on the Chieftain in British Columbia and the Skyway Route on Mount Constance in Washington State. 

After college he had joined the Army’s 10thMountain Division, and had served as an instructor in the division’s climbing school.  Although the division was headquartered at Fort Drum, New York, the climbing school was at Breckinridge, Colorado.  Burkhart rose from second lieutenant to captain, and was the deputy director of the school when his father passed away, and Burkhart left the Army to try to keep his father’s business—Burkhart Beer Distributing—together.   

The reader is following the life-or-death struggle of two people on the side of the mountain—hundreds of feet up a granite cliff, their fingers giving out and their bolt slipping out of the crevice—and suddenly we are reading about the family beer distributorship.  This is an exaggeration to make a point, but it isn’t much of an exaggeration.  For new writers, the urge to talk about how Burkhart got into rock climbing—and to let the reader know right away—can be intensely strong. 

Most novels need some backstory.  A bit of the characters’ backgrounds and several events leading up to the story—things that occurred before August 1—are probably needed to make the story clear and complete.  How can a writer successfully include these necessary explanations?  

First, irrespective of how important the backstory is to the novel, do not use the backstory in the first pages of the novel.  Maybe not in the first thirty pages of the novel.  The reader can wait.  If the writer starts her backstory on page three, she has determined how far an agent or publisher will read: page three.  Back-story not only halts the story, it halts the agent’s interest.  Early backstory is a singular hallmark of amateurism.  

Second, make the backstory short.  Far less is probably needed than it seemed when we were inventing the plot and creating the characters.  Eliminate those things that aren’t essential to understanding the story.  We love that our heroine Annette’s mother graduated from Stanford.  Let’s keep it to ourselves. 

Third, dialogue between our characters is perhaps the most interesting way to deliver backstory: 

“Don’t let Travis do the same thing to you that Ben did,” Courtney said.

“I have no idea what you mean.”  Katie Jo looked away, hoping Courtney hadn’t seen the rush of color to her face.

“He ditched you three days before your wedding, and it almost destroyed you and your mother,” Courtney said.  “This Travis is the same type of guy.” 

Sure, it’s backstory, but at least we can see the characters building their relationship as the backstory is delivered. 

So: that information about the beer distributorship?  Leave it out or save it for later and make it short.  Wait.  A beer distributorship?  Leave it out.


James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.  He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (

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