Oh baby, I got them backstory blues
Baby, Baaaaby, I got them backstory blues
Got me goin’ so damn crazy
Backstory gonna drive me to booze
Okay, so I’ll never be a blues singer.
But I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of backstory in literature, the necessary evil that good writers struggle with every time they sit down to write. Theoretically, our characters enter our stories as fully formed people, with histories and motivating factors, as well as current dilemmas. But stories, we are told, should begin in medias res, in the middle of things, and move forward from there, so that the reader becomes immediately caught up in the tension of the narrative.
Ironic (to begin in the middle), but ultimately makes sense. We wouldn’t want to start every story with something like, “Billy was born in a log cabin…”
Backstory: I started thinking about this more seriously after reading Benjamin Percy’s article, “Don’t Look Back: The Problem with Backstory” in the November/December 2012 issue of Poets & Writers.  He’s one of the best at intimating a character’s past while remaining in the present action, and he wrote that backstory should never, never, be obvious in literature. But soon after, I read several novels in which the author simply brought the narrative to a complete stop in order to back up the backstory dump truck and drop a load at our feet. You know the technique. It reads something like this:
John held the gun to Bob’s head. One more word and he would pull the trigger. John and Bob first met as teenagers in high school, when they showed up for chess club at the same time…
Any decent writer or editor would throw up his hands and scream, “You can’t do that!”
But apparently, you can. Novels great and small do it. I just wrote a review of Jacob M. Appel’s prize winning first novel, which is generally very good, but contains several long info dumps. The first fifty pages of Jeffrey Eugenides’ last novel consisted of one glacier-sized hulk of slow moving backstory. How do they get away with it?
The backstory taboo is largely a misnomer. Most readers, it turns out, perhaps overly influenced by today’s tabloid infested prurience, don’t mind backstory nearly as much as MFAs do. They seem to like learning about a character’s dirty secrets as much as what’s going to happen to her. That may be good news.
More backstory: The thesis novel I wrote for my MFA program took place just before the start of World War I. It’s been sitting quietly on my hard drive for a couple of years. But it recently dawned on me—duh—that the 100th anniversary of the start of the war is about 18 months away. What? Commercial possibilities? I’m now spending about six hours a day editing and rewriting the novel.
Character development was the novel’s main issue. As I work towards making two of the three protagonists more sympathetic, I’m wrestling with their personal histories, which are critical to their motivations, trying to sprinkle clues to their pasts throughout the narrative without detouring into blatant backstory country.
Thoughts/advice on how you feel about this BS (oops, I mean backstory) are welcome.
 Backstory to this backstory: I’ve really been thinking about it for much longer, ever since my first writers’ group accused me of unauthorized info dumping.
 Unfortunately the article is only available in the print issue, not online.
 Backstory to the backstory 2: The book even had an agent for a few months, so it’s not in that bad shape. I expect to be ready to query in as little as a few weeks, and pray—based on publishing timelines—that it won’t be too late.