The Writer’s Block

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Beware of Backstory

James Weil
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Joined: 10 years ago
Posts: 8
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When I was working as a literary agent, I received a fascinating query letter from a writer who had written a crime novel based on a true story.

I asked him to send me the first three chapters, and when he did, I started reading about two characters waiting in a motel room for a drug deal to take place. One of the characters was a bit skittish, and the writer proceeded to write a backstory about this character, who, as it turns out, was quite fascinating.

After almost two pages of backstory, the action continued. The drug deal went south, and this character was shot to death in the first chapter! So, what was the point of all that backstory?

Except for the two main characters, every other character he introduced, their life story was fleshed out with reams of backstory, and most of them you never saw again.

Of course, I was disappointed. The writing was quite good. When I rejected him, I gave him a quick critique, and asked him to resubmit. I never heard from him again.

I avoid backstory whenever possible. It forces the reader to step on the breaks while you go back and fill in details about your character that would probably be better served through revealing your character in action.

Of course, there are times when a bit of backstory can be useful. My advice is to keep it brief, and use it judiciously. Too much backstory will frustrate the reader. It’s akin to driving a car forward, slamming on the breaks, and then going in reverse. You want to keep the action moving forward.

Love to all!