Let me preface my question by saying--wherever it appears, even in the first chapter--I use it sparingly.
Your thoughts, please.
Also comment away on backstory and its uses.
I don't like a lot of it. Not more than a sentence or two.

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I agree, backstory should be used sparingly in the early chapters. After fifty or so pages, I get a little more generous with it. Even then, it should be worked in graduatlly, not in large doses. I try to use dialogue and action to bring in the past where possible. Like all rules, this one is subject to being broken by talented authors. In his debut bestseller, The Blue Edge of Midnight, Jonathan King inserts four pages of backstory about his protagonist starting with page 3.
Yes, I take on board what you say. It makes a lot of sense--sparing and in dialogue and action if possible--but that last example of three pages of backstory beginning on page 3! blew my mind, but it's probably done so well and by an exceptional author that he can get away with it!
i will check that out to see how he did it!
again Chester, thanks so much.
Best-selling authors get away with anything. And that doesn't always depend on quality -- just popularity.

If you stop to think about it, back story is only required when it explains current activity. And so it would be reasonable to insert it only (briefly) at the points where the reader needs that information. I avoid it for purposes of characterization unless some exchange between two regulars would otherwise be startling.
thanks I.J. Yes, I understand that, now that you mentioned it!
it is required when it explains current activity--very good.
I suppose that's what I was looking for really. A brief elaboration which explains better a character's feelings. but brief! as in I shouldn't get carried away!
Explaining the character's feelings is kind of like explaining a joke - if you need to do too much, the problem lies elsewhere.
what a great way to put it!
I suppose it's true.
but having said that, you don't like any backstory at all? Even used very sparingly?
thanks, John!
Sure I use lots of backstory, and even flashbacks. I think maybe I just like breaking rules and not following the conventions of the genre - in my books there are many murderers and other crimes and sometimes the criminals don't even get caught.

I think a story without backstory would tend to lack depth and even context. I'm not really a fan of action - I don't mean emotional action, I mean those stories that are constantly in forward motion, racing from place to place, scene to scene. I understand thrillers are the biggest sellers out there, but they're not for me.

I don't think you can put limits on anything when you write - if backstory needs to be used sparingly for the story use it sparingly, but if there needs to be lots of it, put it in.
I agree with everything you say actually.
I also like backstory--but as such a newbie now, I try and follow the advice about little is better and so on.
For instance, in my w.i.p I'm at this point where I want to describe a relationship and how it got started. It's a problem without backstory.
Hats off to you for having the guts to do it your way!
Maybe after I get my toes wet, I'll have more courage about it!
Well, conflict can take the place of action. Yes, I get very tired of pure action stuff myself. Generally there is no depth to the characters and the action itself frequently no longer believable because there is a contest between books, shows, and films on who has the most thrilling, breath-taking scenario of all. Even Jack Reacher is ultimately very static.

But essentially you can use a moderate amount of action and of cliffhangers (another purely manipulative tool) to keep things moving. Backstory can explain current conflict and character attitude and thus may also serve to move things forward.

I should add that my books are generally both character- and action-driven.
In my current WIP, my protagonist has a very intense, negative history with one of the other characters. In the opening pages, I hint that there is something there through an exchange of dialogue with my protagonist and her best friend. Without pulling it up, it's something like Protagonist: "He's a bully." Best friend: "You should know." And I leave it at that until much later, sprinkling in hints of something devasting along the way. I don't think the reader NEEDS more than that to establish the animosity between the two. Plus it raises a question about what did he do to her, which I hope keeps the reader reading to find out.
that sounds very good! effective, clever way to set things up. And then, of course, we would want to know more! Thanks!
I had what I thought was a minimal amount of backstory in my opening chapter. My agent advised I cut it ALL. I did, and the chapter read SO much better (it even got singled out for special kudos from Douglas Preston! "The opening chapter is superb, a truly beautiful piece of work, one of the best I've read in a long time.") Even more interesting to me was that very, very little of the stuff I cut ever got added back in.

Backstory by its definition takes a story backward, and not forward, so any time we insert much more than a sentence, we lose momentum. I'm not saying it shouldn't be done, but a little goes a long way. Readers are very good at filling in the blanks.


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