Backstory.

Let us imagine, you and I, that we are watching a movie.  We move past the opening credits, during which the camera pans across the blackness of outer space, with a few stars here and there.  There’s a lot of text scrolling across the screen while heroic music plays…this takes two minutes.

Then a spaceship starts to move across the screen.  This goes on for another minute and fifteen seconds – the longest minute and fifteen seconds of your life.

No, it’s not’s Star Wars.

It’s Space Balls.  And because it’s Mel Brooks (and, honestly, because it’s me), it’s funny.

One minute and fifteen seconds of a ninety-six minute movie – an extremely long minute and fifteen seconds of a ninety-six minute movie in which NOTHING HAPPENS.  Say…1.3% of the movie.

According to Wikipedia, which may be wrong, the average person reads about 250 words per minute, or one standard manuscript/book page.

Mel Brooks is making fun of the extremely lengthy shot of the Imperial spaceship at the beginning of Star Wars.  To stretch it out into ridiculousness, he makes it one minute and fifteen seconds long.  To be fair, we could say that whole sequence – opening credits, text scrolling across the screen, AND the shot of the ship takes about three minutes and fifteen seconds, or under 3.4%.

Or, in reader time, three and a quarter pages.

Okay, I’m going to shuffle writing into two boxes.  Box 1 is drama, in which the writer shows the stuff as though it’s actually happening.

Ted raised the rifle.
“What are you doing, Ted?” Mal asked.
“I’m shooting you dead,” Ted said.
“Whatever for?”
There was an explosion. Mal wouldn’t hear the answer, so Ted didn’t bother saying out loud.

Box 2 is summary, in which the writer doesn’t bother to have the characters act things out; the writer just condenses things and moves on.

But what the bystanders didn’t know was this: Mal had shot Ted’s horse two hundred miles ago, leaving his erstwhile partner to survive the desert alone.

Summary can be used for multiple things: to transition between scenes, to skip over the boring parts, and to introduce backstory.

Technically speaking, backstory is whatever happens in the past from the main action of the story.  I’m talking about the summarized backstory at the beginning of a story.

One of the differences between the published stories I’ve read and the slush I read for Apex is that a great deal of the slush contains pages and pages and pages of backstory, that is, explanation that the writer feels it’s necessary for the reader to understand in order to get the story.  Sometimes I read over five pages of backstory in a fifteen-to-twenty-page story – a third or a fourth of the story is backstory.

Which is a much larger proportion than Mel Brooks thinks is ridiculous.

I just want to note that I have nothing against backstory being sprinkled through a story and revealed when dramatically necessary and/or thrilling; I REALLY have nothing against backstory being dramatized and worked into scenes, either scattered through the book or put all in one place.

However, I suspect that the reason that I hear, as a writer, that editors don’t like prologues in novels is that they’re…backstory.  I don’t mind, as a reader, as long as the prologue is interesting, but I hear it a lot that prologues make editors go all cross-eyed.

I pulled some of my favorite books off the shelf.

The Princess Bride starts out with backstory.  Three paragraphs of summary; then it switches to dialogue.  The dramatized backstory is thirty-one pages long before we get to Buttercup, at which point, there are three pages of summary before the drama starts up again; Buttercup’s summary reads like a fairy tale and is very witty.  317 pages.

Wyrd Sisters starts out with drama for four paragraphs, then has a page of summary, then switches back to drama.  319 pages.

The Gunslinger has a paragraph of drama, a paragraph of summary, and goes back to drama.  231 pages.

The Count of Monte Cristo has most of a page of commingled drama and summary that are so entertwined as to be inseperable; then it switches to drama.  1078 pages.

Little, Big has two pages of (admittedly very slow) drama, then sinks into dramatized (but again, very slow) memory for a page, then goes into almost four pages of summary interspersed with dramatized backstory.  538 pages, and the beginning almost always puts me to sleep, so I haven’t read it nearly as many times as I’ve picked it up.

Harry Potter and the Socerer’s Stone has a page and a half of summary then switches to action.  309 pages.

Admittedly, I don’t like to sift through pages and pages of summarized explanation before I get to the story, so my selection is biased, even when I pick up random books on my shelf.  But when you’re opening a story, consider – how much summarized backstory are you starting your story with?

I see it a lot; the trick of the better writer is to create the setting without making the backstory stick out as boring.  You’re trying to get paid to tell stories – if the backstory is so important as to overwhelm the main story, then write about that.  Otherwise, put your summarized backstory somewhere else, unless it makes the entire beginning devolve into nonsense.  A little summary is fine.  Description is lovely.  But don’t explain to me what happened five centuries ago in voiceover narration that takes half an hour to get through.

Thank you.  And please smack my hand if I try it, too.

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5 Comments

  1. I agree. I don’t like pages and pages of backstory beginning a book. It usually feels like the information can either be shown or explained in little bursts throughout the entire novel. And I hate prologues for the same reason. If I every start my work with pages of backstory, you have permission to smack my hand.

    • De

      I’m on the fence about prologues; sometimes I like them and sometimes I just skip them. I do like frame stories quite a bit, and stories that are half now, half in the past…I just want to see things happen, not have them glossed over in a paragraph, most of the time.

  2. This is extremely helpful, as I just kind of write and explain things where I feel it needs it, and I find myself doing much of my editing (when I edit) in the back story.

    Thank you for this blog! Glad to have found you!

    • De

      Why, thank you 🙂

      I mainly have the opposite problem, not explaining things fast enough for people. Now I just need to find out how to do that.

  3. I’m really excited that The Gunslinger is on your list of favorites. Did you know Universal is making several movies out of the series and a couple of TV series? I’m excited but also a little afraid of them messing things up.

    Back on topic…

    Ever since my college Creative Writing professor told us about the difference between showing and telling, I’ve been excessively paranoid about it… and yet I tell an awful lot. I’ve gotten better with it, but I’m trying really hard to move things along rather than explaining a lot of things. I like the idea of peppering in backstory as you go. I think I could easily take my rough drafts and move things around so that there is more action and fewer chunks of explanation.

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