More Light, More Universe, More Everything . . . And a Little Backstory

by Brenda Bensch


At the Life, The Universe and Everything (LTUE) conference, an interesting panel discussion was held on the subject of backstories. Some of Utah’s top authors made up the panel: Tracy Hickman, Rachel Ann Nunes, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Eric Swedin, Michelle Davidson Argyle and Robert J. Defendi.

What wannabe writers usually hear is “too much backstory,” or “don’t write prologues” (which is a novel’s way of presenting backstory). So why have any backstory at all?


Backstory is a way to give the novel depth. These characters are “real” people, who have a history: a past; a present; hopefully, a future; still, it is not necessary for an author to “tell all” to the reader. And certainly not all at once.

The panelists had a variety of opinions on backstories—below, find some of their comments:

Don’t let it dribble out more than half a sentence at a time
Give the reader the information slightly AFTER he needs to know it

You don’t need to tell it all at once
It’s a way to plan out your story
Develop the backstory as you go

Write two “books” at a time—
The first is your outline (often referred to as your Bible or Character Bible) writing this one keeps the author from going back on his “word”
It needs to contain the Rules for your world/universe; geography of that world; the back history;
how the world works financially, politically, socially; etc.
The second book is your novel
(Hickman also reminded authors to hold that Bible like a handful of marbles—if you hold them too tightly, you’ll eventually lose all your marbles; too loose, and your hand opens and the marbles fall; hold them in a cupped hand, with marbles falling within the framework)

More ideas from the panel—

End the party when nobody wants to leave—leave them wanting more, rather than overdoing backstory
Build your backstory with care—it can often be loosely built on actual history; i.e., Hickman’s “Nazi elves”
Remember: “Talent imitates; genius steals”
No one should recognize where your “model” or Main Character (MC) came from or how s/he got “here” or where s/he at the beginning
even minor characters should have backstory and motivations

One more word from the panel in general:
If editors identify a “problem,” 95% of the time, there is a problem
90% of the time those editors identify symptoms of the problem—not the problem itself
Much of the time, the author only needs to add more front story, or delete some backstory

So, Author Beware!

Brenda Bensch
or The ABC Writers Guild at

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