Is Backstory Necessary?

“So when my students ask me how much backstory they’re permitted to include in a story, I say, ‘How about none?'”

That’s Benjamin Percy in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, an excellent book on writing fiction.
He expands on his backstory bashing: “None is a good start. Because it’s so often unnecessary. A reader intuits the history of a character by observing them acting in the present.”
It’s as if I were to tell you that I’m writing this post because I made a promise to myself a few weeks ago to blog more often, to have fun with it, and to use what I’m reading and listening to as launchpads for creating content.
Does that make you care any more about this post’s actual topic?
While I’m not a developmental editor for fiction (yet), I have read enough nonfiction works-in-progress (including my own) where the first 10 to 20 percent needed to be cut. It was the author warming up to what they really wanted to write about.
Backstory is like that. You may need to write it so you know what your story is about and why your characters do what they do, but you don’t need to publish it.
As Percy writes, “The impulse to explain will insult the reader. That’s their job—part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor.”
So let your coauthor do the work they may not even know they want to do.
Kill your little darling of a backstory.


One thought on “Is Backstory Necessary?

  1. Some backstory is essential, but most of it isn’t. One cool trick to deliver some of those essential pieces of backstory is to do it in dialogue. It paints enough of the picture to fill the reader in but doesn’t make it a paint-by-numbers situation.

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