Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Do You Need Backstory in Middle Grade Novels?

When you’re writing for middle grade readers, you need to keep the story moving. Backstory, or information about the background or history of characters and objects, can create an info dump that stops the action of the story, or at least slows it to a snail-like crawl.

Does that mean backstory is a no-no for middle grade novels?

I think you’d have a hard time finding a novel without any backstory at all. As middle grade writer Laura Pauling points out, we need backstory for helping to create characters with depth.
Knowing some background about a character can help develop a character’s motivation (e.g., Harry Potter’s backstory of surviving Voldemort’s attack as an infant). And knowing what a character has gone through in the past can sometimes help us feel more emotionally connected to characters. So the trick is to somehow include the backstory so that it doesn’t get in the way of the real here and now story of the novel.

Some strategies:

Weave it in gradually. This is the most common tip I see in articles about backstory. Avoid an info dump by giving key details about the character’s past in small pieces, rather than a long explanation.

Make sure it’s necessary. I think it’s so important to only include backstory where and when it’s needed.
Like other elements of your story, it has to be something that the reader really needs to know at that particular point in the story. Maybe it will keep the reader from being confused. Or maybe it shows why the character has made a decision. If it doesn’t have a purpose that helps move the story along, you might not need it. A lot of advice I’ve read (including Donald Maass) says not to include backstory at the beginning, when you’re trying to hook your reader.

Use only a little. Keep your backstory brief and to the point. (Remember, the Harry Potter novels, which at times seem to be built on backstory, are exceptions.)

Make it interesting or make it quick. If you are including some backstory and have found a natural place to bring it into your story, there are different ways to fold it in. You could just directly state it and quickly move on. Or you might bring it in through a brief memory, especially if you’re trying to develop an emotional connection to your reader. Flashbacks could be another way, but I don’t see those often in books for middle grade readers (they can be confusing).
Including backstory through dialogue is one way people try to avoid the “show not tell’ problem, but as author Elana Johnson says, this can be really awkward and unnatural sounding.

How much do you rely on backstory? Do you have any tips to share?

*As always, if you know of any great posts on backstory, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here for our reference.

Elana Johnson, author of the YA novel, Possession, has some thoughts on using backstory for world building.
Laura Pauling’s take on backstory.

Becca Puglisi of The Bookshelf Muse gives us some strategies for using backstory in this guest post at Sherry's Fiction Writing Tools.

At Writing While the Rice Boils, Debbie Maxwell Allen has a series of 4 posts by Randy Ingermanson that give us a thorough look at the topic of backstory.
Over at Literary Rambles, Casey McCormick posts a great tip on how much backstory to include from one of her blog readers, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban.

Rachel Larow of Mommy Authors gives some tips on balancing backstory.

Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner gives advice on strategic ways to use backstory, especially in your novel opening.
Author Jody Hedlund weighs in on how much and when to use backstory.

At the Query Tracker blog, Stina Lindenblatt talks about backstory.

Author Mary Carroll Moore talks about how backstory can help or hinder.


  1. yes, I think backstory is needed in middle grade but it also depends if it's younger or older MG and what kind of story it is. Either case it needs to be done well.

  2. Great post.
    I don’t think any story can be called a novel without back-story. Middle Grade or any other, without a back-story it is not a novel. That’s where chapter books become MG. But we are advised to go lightly for younger readers.
    I find younger readers much more capable than many pros think they are.

  3. As always, thanks for sharing more great links. :)

    I think MG does need backstory but maybe not so much at once. Definitely a weaving in. But I think it's needed to show character depth and reasons why they act they way they do.

  4. Thanks for all the helpful links. I think you need some backstory - but sometimes it's a question of you as the author knowing it, not necessarily sharing all of it with the reader. Like you said, only include the things that are really crucial to the story - otherwise it's dead weight. Back story is something I really have to watch. Sometimes I find myself writing long passages of it and then I catch myself and realize I'm just trying to get to know my character - the reader doesn't need all that!

  5. This is a really good post. It's tough, blending (controlling) backstory particularly with a series. I dealt with it in my third JRA book (underway) using dialogue but kept it brief - just enough info to shove off from the dock with a sense of direction. Sorry - got a thing for boats ... & dead pirates.

  6. Great discussion points, everyone!

    For some reason, Laura Pauling's first comment did post but this is what she said: "Yes, I think backstory is needed in middle grade but it also depends if it's younger or older MG and what kind of story it is. Either case it needs to be done well."

    It is so important to think about the story and the age of the readers when you're working on blending in your backstory. This is something I am very conscious of in writing, and while I'm doing revisions.

  7. Ugh. I meant to say Laura Pauling's first comment didn't post.

  8. I love the roundup of links!

    One tip is to put each morsel of backstory in at just the spot where it's needed to understand the character's emotions or actions at that spot.

  9. This is great information no matter what genre you write. And I love the list of links! Thanks.


  10. Wow, thanks for sharing this. A great post with great links to boot!

  11. Great post! I found your blog from Barbara Watson's post today. Glad I did! :)

  12. Great tip, Marcia!

    I'm glad you all like the links and find it useful.

    Welcome, Jennifer! I'm glad you found something useful here.

  13. Thanks, Andrea, this is like a master class in writing backstory! Yes, it's necessary, and it's just as bad to include too little as too much. And different types of novels (fantasy, mystery) require different amounts of backstory. Great takeaways!

  14. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as well as a wonderful offering of related links!


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