How Much Backstory is Enough?

I’ve been thinking about backstory lately, and just how hard it is to judge the right balance.

I think part of the problem is that it can come down to a personal choice. Depending on the preferences of the reader or critiquer giving the feedback you can get either no comment, a request for more information, or a desperate plea to cut! Cut! All for the same piece of work.

One of the crit groups I was in had no other writers working on fantasy. That was good when it came to clarity and brevity, but the sort of atmospheric description that often makes a fantasy manuscript was pretty much taken as unnecessary padding by this group. It’s hard to stand in the face of such united feedback, even if it is dead wrong for your manuscript. I learned a lot from that group about putting in only what was necessary and cutting sections that described the same thing from different perspectives. But, based on that experience, I really started to think about the point of view of the person giving the feedback and making some real judgements about whether the suggested changes would take me in the direction I wanted to go.

The rule of thumb is to cut backstory to an absolute minimum in the beginning of the story. It’s a good maxim. I try hard to do this, but there are limits. Many of my worlds, particularly the fantasy ones, have lots of new concepts and terms that need to be explained from the beginning for the story to make sense. I’m caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. I’m still trying to puzzle that one out.

The other thing that makes me unsure about this is that many stories seem to launch straight into huge sections of backstory/reflection and work well and also find commercial success. In this case it is almost always supporting the establishment of character, rather than the world, but it’s still backstory.

I guess I fall into the same trap as any writer who has spent a long time building a world and getting excited by the concepts – I love to talk about it! And I tend to talk about it on the page. ‘Oh, I have to mention. . .’

But how much backstory is enough? How do you decide?

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