Unkilling Those Backstory Darlings

Yes, “unkilling.” WordPress wouldn’t let me write Killing in my post header, so I had to get creative. Shoot me, already.

On with it…

Yes, we have to be careful about how much backstory we drop into our manuscripts. It sure feels like, unless I’m reading an epic fantasy or a long family drama, that less and less backstory is being used today. And, honestly, as a reader, I’m fine with that. I like spare prose, I like tight storytelling, I like characterization that the author has managed to draw fully in a very few words.

As a writer, I’m more than fine with it…as a goal. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it. Especially in a historical novel in which the MC’s freedom is being seriously limited by her mother’s past. Especially in a picture book in which I seem to need to know lots about the two characters’ past together, none of which am I giving six actual words to explain on the page.

So, yes, as a writer, I want to encourage you to kill your backstory darlings. In revision, train yourself to throw up a mental penalty flag (Wow! A sports metaphor from me!) every time you start talking about the past, or describing a character, or discussing a relationship, etc., etc…for more than a few paragraphs. Maybe for more than two paragraphs. Honestly, maybe for more than two sentences. Cut and…kill.

But here’s the thing. I’m not sure those deaths have to be final.

(Sorry, but that’s the scariest zombie you’ll see at my blog.)

This backstory is development. When you’re writing a first draft, you’re supposed to let things flow. You’re still learning. Heck, I’m on the second draft, and I’m still learning. Oh, wait…picture book….thirteen drafts…sigh. You get the point.

At some point, though, you’re going to get rid of a humongous chunk of backstory.

Here’s the question.

Do you hit the Delete key, or do you pick Cut-and-Paste?

Your choice, obviously, and it’s going to depend a lot on your process and your memory. Me, if I think I’m going to want to use something in the future, I don’t get rid of it. I don’t trust myself to remember what it was, or the absolute brilliance with which I wrote it. (Yes, you’re right. 98.7323% of the time, I look back at it and either don’t need it or the brilliance has completely faded.) But I don’t see a problem with keeping a file of backstory that you’ve taken out of your manuscript.

Your readers do need some information about the characters and the world they’re moving in. It’s a rare novelist, and I can’t name one off the top of my head, who can give the reader everything through dialogue and pure action. As you cut and cut, you’re also going to be trickling.

A line here. A few words there.

Odds are you’re not going to pull the exact wording from that backstory file. But tons of writers use character worksheets, or make collages to represent the settings they want to create. What do you think? Would a backstory file be a good refresher for you, a reminder of all the things you once knew and wrote down about this story? Would this file point you in the right direction to the few words you need now?

Thoughts? Comments? Do you delete, or do you copy?

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15 thoughts on “Unkilling Those Backstory Darlings

  1. With picture books, I keep every version, so I can always go back to pull things that I liked but cut if I need to or want to. I won’t even tell you how many drafts of one of my WIPS I have so far. It’s embarrassing!

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  2. I used to cut and paste, but found I had a lot of files on my computer that I never went back to. I do reuse bits of the backstory, but I tend to find that the ones I want to reuse or ultimately do reuse are the ones with enough sticking power to stay in my head, so in the end, I reuse them without ever accessing those files. So now I delete, but keep the mental file if it is worth it.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Jeannie, I think that’s mostly true for me…so far. This post may have come out of my feelings about the current WIP, a historical that is really challenging my goal of writing deeply AND sparingly! I feel like things are changing all the time in this early draft, and I can’t know yet what I might/might not want. Given that anxiety, it is true that I have rarely gone back to pull out text from earlier drafts on any other books!

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  3. At the bottom of the section I’m editing I keep a ‘parking lot’. It’s sort of like purgatory for backstory and other ‘darlings’. I get to clean up the section without getting rid of anything. Most of the time the parking lot gets emptied out, but sometimes things lurking in there get repurposed – sometimes in a completely different section that’s more appropriate.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I like calling it a parking lot, Alex! When I’m revising something that I know I’m changing a LOT in, I will start writing at the top and then will delete as I get past where I might want to retrieve anything from the old file. Kind of similar. 🙂

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    • I do something like this, Alex, and I’m going to have to adopt the great term “parking lot”!

      Becky, this an excellent explanation of a process I’ve been through many times myself. Part of my revision is taking the chunks of backstory from the beginning, pruning them down, and moving them to later points. I always like reading a novel where the backstory is revealed gradually.

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      • beckylevine says:

        Me, too. I’m just getting ready to put up another backstory post–and I talk about that reveal just a bit. I’m talking about Robin Brande’s book DOGGIRL, in which she does the gradual reveal beautifully.

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  4. Lani Longshore says:

    I tend to be ruthless. If I’ve written a lot that I need to know, I’ll put it in my character biography file, but otherwise it goes away.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Lani, I know that feeling–when I get into the word/sentence/paragraph revising level, I’m like that, too. It’s while I’m still developing things that I get a little nervous…but maybe that’s mostly my fear of forgetting!

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  5. I’m floored that WP won’t let you kill your darlings! That said, I’m a cut-and-paste writer myself. I have an outtakes folder for anything that isn’t working but that I’m sorry to lose. I rarely ever look at it, though, so I guess it’s mostly for reassurance.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Well, WP wouldn’t let me cross it out in the title! Ha! It is reassurance, Amy–totally for me. I wonder, though, if I went back and read some of, all in one place, if it would help me get a big-picture understanding of my characters to use while I revised.

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