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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 2: You Cut the Backstory
I don’t need backstory. I don’t want it. Neither will your readers.
It’s crucial for you, the author, to know your subjects and backstory better than anyone. But writing isn’t a test. You don’t need to show your work. Manuscripts I love respect my intelligence and don’t patronize me by feeding me backstory.
There are a lot of things I don’t need to know in order to enjoy a tale. Show me what’s happening. Know it doesn’t matter to me that your protagonist graduated first in her class from Harvard in 2005 and is an expert on North African Pre-Egyptian fossils, which her dead but much-loved grandfather inspired her to study. Show her in action and I know she’s an expert. Keep my interest by leaving her history unsaid until it’s pertinent.
The backstory rule also applies to historical, technical and mythical/magical information. You as a writer need to know every detail of pertinent information for your tale. If your story takes place in the Ottoman Empire in the thick of World War I, you better do your historical research, and probably study the military hardware of the time too. If you’re writing a speculative fiction piece, you need to know how the warp drive your ships use and the phasers your ships fire work. But after doing all your research or technical development, it’s tempting to tell it all as soon as something is referenced.
Don’t do it.
Here you need to know the target audience for your work a little bit. Some historical fiction readers want to get deeper in the historical weeds, and some science fiction readers want to go further under the hood. But ultimately the important thing for the reader is what these items do, not how they do it, or how life is during the time period, not how it got that way. You as author need to know these things so you can add background detail, explain when necessary, and, above all, avoid inconsistencies. Even if a reader doesn’t understand the technology or history, he or she will spot an inconsistency immediately. (“I have no idea how shields or transporters work, but I thought you couldn’t use a transporter through shields!”)
Too many times a good manuscript goes off the rails when the author starts to dump in backstory about characters, history or technology. It slows the narrative to a crawl, and most of the information I don’t need. Accept that I, and your readers, will appreciate your exhaustive research and backstory without needing to know it.
2 thoughts on “Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: You Cut The Backstory”
Brilliant advice, especially the ‘you don’t need to show your work’ analogy. I’m all for backstory in a first draft if it helps keep the fingers moving across the keyboard, but it should certainly be hacked out by the second. Writers should live in the present, not dwell in the past – otherwise, why isn’t THAT what the novel’s about? Anyway, great post!
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Thank you! Yes, I write a lot of backstory in my first drafts, but cut on the second pass. I also appreciate the inclusion of Clueless Dude ™ in some situations who can be a proxy for the reader. “Wait, why are those guys trying to kill you?” “Well, Clueless Dude, it all started….” Like Neo in the Matrix 😛
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