Craft,  Revising and Editing

Does Your Backstory Make Your Readers Stabby?


Oh yes, you’ve been working on that character’s backstory for months!

You’ve written thousands of words of backstory! You know how his parents met, how he got that scar on his pasty white tuckus, and why he gets all shaky and whiny when he’s served enchiladas. This is all-important stuff you told yourself as you dumped it out into the first chapter of your work-in-progress. It sets the stage! The readers can really know him! This will make the story richer!

Your character’s backstory may have bored your reader to tears.

They left after the second or third page. They want a story: they don’t want a genealogical report or long-winded childhood account. (Although that bit about the enchiladas was creepy.)

Best case scenario, your readers just thought that they would put your book aside and wait for when they need a good relaxant before bed. Worst case? All of your details and exposition made them want to take a sharp knife and stab their Kindle with the force of Hurricane Sandy.

Don’t make your readers stabby.

Here’s how to avoid it.

Ask a beta reader or critique partner to highlight only the most important of information. Go through your manuscript and evaluate every sentence that is not action or dialogue and ask, “Is this information critical to the story?” If it isn’t, cut it out. It’s going to hurt. You’ve grown very attached to this character’s past. I don’t recommend mixing alcohol and editing, but if it will help, pour yourself a drink while you hack away.

Make a note of any point of view problems. You must stay in the head of the narrative character. It could be that you’ve had your main character pondering his childhood trauma with enchiladas, but let’s be realistic here, how often should he wax nostalgic? Eliminate all interior monologue rabbit trails. If the thoughts aren’t consistent with the main character and don’t add to the story, you’ll need to cut it out.

Track how much action is in the story. Action is when any character does something physically to meet his objectives. A character that moves purposefully is a character that is progressing the story. You want lots of this. You want your main character to DO STUFF that is unrelated to that tuckus scar. (Unless, of course, you write erotica. And if you do, I don’t want details.)

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“Backstory is actually at its most powerful when we don’t tell it—or rather when we don’t show it. The strength of the backstory is its looming shadow. Readers know it’s there, they see it’s having an effect upon the characters, but they don’t always need to know the nitty-gritty details.”— K.M. Weiland


Give your reader credit. Your reader is very familiar with the art of storytelling. They can piece bits together without you explaining every little thing. Readers can make conclusions on their own. They can connect dots on their own. If you give them too much exposition or backstory, it’s kind of like you’re insulting their intelligence. Nothing makes me stabbier than people thinking I’m stupid.

Make a list of the absolutely most important details and then drop them in like breadcrumbs. With exposition, less is more. Your reader may want the information you’re withholding if you’ve spread it far apart enough. The little bits you do give will make them curious. That’s a good thing. Curious readers turn pages. Curious readers finish books.

Use dialogue as a place to share information. But do it well. Someone needs to not know what’s going on. Have them ask questions. Then use your main character to only give them a little bit of information. Here’s an example:

Main character’s date: “Why aren’t you eating those enchiladas?”

Main character: “These? These?” He catches his breath, swallows, downs a glass of water and pushed the plate away. “I haven’t liked them since I was six. Can you take them away? Can you take them away, NOW?”

The problem with the enchiladas isn’t fully explained, but it doesn’t need to be. The reader’s curiosity is piqued and they’ll keep reading to find out what’s going on with specific Mexican foods and this poor loser’s childhood.

Review story structure rules. My friend K.M. Weiland often says that if there’s a problem with a story, it’s almost always a structural one. I firmly believe that the best way to make ourselves better storytellers is to really understand structure inside and out. Once you do, you’ll see that too much backstory and exposition can kill a story’s pacing. Not to mention make your readers stabby. Need help with story structure? Look here. 

You CAN make your story lively, fast-paced, and gripping.

To do so, you’ll need to look at that backstory and exposition with a brutal eye. I know, I know, you worked so hard on this. The backstory creation is for you. The elimination of unnecessary details is for your reader.

If your readers are stabby, then they’re not going to enjoy your book.

They could get bored, skip over parts, put your book down and forget about it. They could not leave a review for you, nor recommend it to your friends.

By controlling your backstory and exposition, your making the whole story a richer experience.

And you’ll probably save someone a fortune in damages.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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