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Wondering about where to put long backstory


Hello all and thanks for looking. I'm working on my second series of novels. The first was a fan-fic piece that came out pretty well but is way too long. The second is original. In creating the world I wrote three chapters (about 18k words) that are summaries of three historical books written over eight hundred years by an extinct order of scholars. The ruling regime proscribed them as a threat and ruthlessly eradicated both the scribes and the books for the last two hundred years. But they didn't get them all. Obtaining and using this information is a central objective of the two central insurrectionists. The body of the main book only lasts eleven years and runs another 275k words.

I wrote them as the introduction with a narrative style and hints of humor. A couple people I told were skittish about such a long opening since it doesn't get to any major characters. I'm not overfond of long, self-indulgent introductions myself so I'm giving that weight. The information is essential to the story but I don't want to scare-off potential readers. There is other lore at least as long that comes of the search but that is revealed as discovered.

The book is ready for the serious rewrite. I'd love to hear your ideas about whether to leave them in front or splice bits in. Thanks, Skip


Article Team
The information may be important, but WHEN is it important and how much of it is really necessary? If you design your scenes and the flow of the story right, you can drip the information in a bit at a time, giving the reader enough information to understand things at that moment. You don't have to fire hose everything at once. If people pick up a book expecting a narrative story, and instead get encyclopedia entry after encyclopedia entry, you're going loos a few readers right out of the gate. Give the reader enough to know what's going on, and if there's extra, maybe have an appendix. But make sure that appendix isn't required reading.
I think when you say ‘splice’, it sounds like an inelegant afterthought. Weaving information into the story in an artful way would be more along the lines of what I would suggest, having read books where the reader learns information about the fantasy world as the story unfolds in part of the art, and if done well, the reader doesn’t even notice that information being relayed. But it also depends on your style, Tolkien liked to write long, LONG sections of backstory, and that can either be tedious or enjoyable depending on what the reader enjoys in a fantasy novel.
What Penpilot said. Don't dump everything at the front of the book. Very few readers will make it through 3 chapters of background encyclopedia entries by an unknown writer, unless they're exceptionally well written (and even then...).

You often need to give the reader a lot less information than you think. And you definitely don't need to do so right at the start. Only introduce those bits of world the reader can't do without at the beginning. Ask yourself why knowing exactly what's in history books written 800 years ago is essential to characters and readers now. And why can't they discover it along the way?

If the reader really, really must read all this information, consider cutting it up into smaller chunks which you disperse throughout the book. Done like that it can make an interesting read if it works to some twist or climax which is relevant to the story. In the first Mistborn trilogy Sanderson did something like that. He had little epigraphs at the start of each chapter which gave some in world lore which happened a 1000 years ago (or something like that). It showed how the world came to be and that the current ruler wasn't the hero everyone thought he was.


Myth Weaver
If the "histories" are essential to the story, then I have to ask...
Are you starting your story in the right place?
I might make the "histories" part of the main story.
Or have the characters in the main story "discover" the histories as they get pulled into their tale.


It's a head-scratcher.

CupofJo; The three chapters are both backstory and critical objectives for secessionists in the region. Each is a summary in the present-day tongue of a much larger work written in a dead language. All were hastily copied by the scholastic order knowing the ruling family planned to ghost them to keep magical secrets a secret. That almost succeeded.

I had the current story-arc in my head and then created the world going back thousands of years following the development of religion, sorcery, language, ethnic profiles, military history and rise of city/states. The last book is specific to the ruling family. There is a fairly detailed map.

For now I'll leave it where it is and do the rewrite looking for places to insert meaningful segments. That will also give me a chance to see how much the gentle reader would need to know at inflection points and what could either wait or hit the trash bin. That is also a good point to consider professional editing. My first piece of fiction was intended to be a weekend short story. It ended up almost 900,000 words long. The muse isn't a problem. Murdering my darlings is.

Thanks again and good luck with your projects, Skip


toujours gai, archie
A suggestion: keep it all as a separate document. Dive into the story. Resolve not to use *any* of the backstory material. Be serious about that resolve.

At some point in the telling of your story, you may find it impossible to keep something out of the story. At that point, and only at that point, include that one thing from the three chapters. In other words, use only what cannot be avoided.

Once that piece is there, then finesse it. Decide how it's included, who tells it or discovers it, or whether it's in narrative. Consider whether the passage can be re-written such that the piece isn't necessary after all.

Now, I realize you've already written the story, so the above applies to the revision rather than to first draft, but the principle is the same. After a while, you'll start to get a feel for what is absolutely necessary, what is good color, and what is merely ornamental. One of the functions my web site serves is to be home for backstory stuff that doesn't make it into stories but which I can't bear not to tell _somewhere_. I don't kill my children, per the literary advice, I just banish them to a website. <g>

Also, I'm just me (Skip). You're speaking to the whole of the Scribes community!
Do I understand you to be saying that the search for the books is part of the main plot driver?

If that is the case I'd be putting very little indeed of the text into your story. Meaningful snippets placed at the start of chapters would work well.

As Skip Knox said, it's often valuable to have written screeds of backstory but it doesn't have to be dumped into the main story at all. It informs your narrative and deeply enriches your world building because you understand the world and its subler textures so well. Dump the reader straight into your world and its action. They'll work it out - as long as the story is compelling enough to keep their attention..


Not a main driver but the books have the complete world-building model. They also inform a lot of the government's military and special ops efforts. My problem is that I thought this out backwards. Lately I've been trying to condense three long trips into two. That hasn't worked so I'll worry about the backstory after I figure out where my characters are going in the here and now. Thanks and I'll look forward to letting you know how things go. sh