The Backstory

So this is a dystopian/science fiction blog for young adults. We talk about writing, the genre, philosophies, books, etc. I've been reading a lot of dystopian novels lately (and for a while). Sometimes when I go to star them on Goodreads, I'll get sucked into the reviews.

And something I've seen recently is readers commenting on the lack of backstory. Yeah, you read that right. The lack of backstory. They want to know at some point how the world evolved from our present state to the storyworld that exists in the book.

I've been thinking about it a lot lately. I think it's something the author knows--they have to know--and requires careful placement in the novel so readers can find out in an authentic way. But how to do it?

Here's my loose guide:
1. Drop us into the world in the first chapter, but make sure to slip in one-sentence explanations in the narrative. I think the best way to do this is to allow the MC have an opinion on the society. Or be in a heightened emotional state about the society. That can allow the reader to get a feel for the world quickly.

2. In the next several chapters, the MC could either conform to the laws of the new world, or defy them. Either way, the author has the opportunity to establish what goes in this society and what doesn't. Along the way, the author can slip in a sentence or two about the society that contributes to the transition, but without really divulging the whole story.

3. Later, when the MC is realizing things they didn't know about their society, carefully insert how the world we know evolved into the one in the book. Not pages and pages, because the reader already knows the laws and intricacies. They've been living it for hundreds of pages. Just a taste, a few sentences or paragraphs maybe, that give more detail of the journey from now to then.

What do you think? In the dystopian/futuristic books you've read, have you been satisfied with the amount of backstory? Have you found yourself wishing you knew more about the transition from this world to the storyworld?

12 comments:

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I agree. There should be something. But just like any other book, it should be put in like spices: sparingly, scattered, subtly. Like you said, a line here and there is enough. IF you do it creatively and not take the person out of the story. Make it into a question that the reader is trying to figure out and then answer it at the appropriate time, in an appropraite way.

lotusgirl said...

It's nice to have some bridge but it doesn't have to be super developed and like Kathryn said: sprinkled like spices.

Perry Wilson said...

I like to fill in some of the details myself. If I get too much backstory and it's not up front I feel like I've been tricked when it comes late.

Putting a few hints in early is sufficient. Leaving out completely is not a good idea.

Kulsuma said...

Backstory is very, very important to me. If there's not enough it will frustrate me because I want to know if this new dystopian world is realistically possible. It should be for the most part. For that to happen though, the reader needs explanations. Of course, I don't want a whole essay on it but I would need clues at the appropriate points in the novel. I dislike asking the same question such as 'What happened in this world?' for the entirety of a novel, it overshadows the rest of the reading experience.

Mary said...

I've noticed that myself, especially with all the dystopians I've been reading lately. They drop you into this cool (or scary) world and tell a great story but I want to know what happened? Where did the world go wrong that we ended up *here*?

Of course, like with fantasy & science fiction, too much backstory kills the atmosphere. But I need some. It's a balancing act but it's necessary. Too much=overload. Too little=too many unanswered questions or confusion.

Amber Argyle said...

Definitely have to sprinkle backstory evenly instead of in big chunks.

Lydia Kang said...

That balancing act is hard. I really don't like huge infodumps, so I'm okay with bit by bits revealing the world instead.

IanBontems said...

Good post. I agree that some backstory is necessary, and if it's done right, sometimes it doesn't even feel like an infodump. In fantasy I like to add it on a need to know basis, when the characters would want to know something.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great topic, Elana. Backstory is a thin tightrope. As a reader, I need to know what's going on in the world or I get lost, but I don't want to spend pages learning about the hows and whys of a world.

And as a writer, it's an even thinner rope to walk. For me, there's so much of the world in my head, and I'm so excited about the world I created, I have to be careful I don't lay the whole thing out in page after page of glowing detail. I know I find it all immensely interesting, but that kind of detail would bore the daylights out of anyone not inside my head.

The best books are the ones that sprinkle a little, layer a little and let you infer a little. =o)

E. Arroyo said...

I don't tend to look for that information. I can guess depending on the world that is created now. I think unless its something different (no plague, wars, and natural disasters) then perhaps the information should be provided. But that's just me.

Tina Laurel Lee said...

Super helpful post. Elana, your suggestions of how to deal with it make a lot sense. Thank you!

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks guys! I'm reading The Scorch Trials right now, and Dashner does a great job of giving the reader little hints about how the world came to be, what it's like now, etc. to a MC who knows nothing.