Backstory…or not?

So, I’m reading Those that Wake, by Jesse Karp, (which doesn’t hit shelves until March 21st, by the way), and it starts off with what seems perfectly normal days in characters’ lives. One of the characters, a high school student, wakes up late for an important interview for an internship. At this point, it seems the story world is normal. Then the author starts dropping hints of a 9/11-style disaster, the aftereffects of which have been contained by a dome, and you start figuring out that this is a future society where today’s smart phones would be the obsolete equivalent of rotary phones, and everything is recorded and digitalized to within an inch of its life. And then the character tries to call her parents and they have no memory of her whatsoever. Her school has no record of her. She has no idea what’s going on. I’m 150 pages into the book, and I…don’t really have a clue what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m intrigued, and I want to know. I just…don’t.

My question is, as a reader, do you prefer to have a solid grasp on what’s happening in the book you’re reading right up front? I don’t mean you know every little detail and there aren’t any surprises in store. I’m talking mainly about world-building and cultural/societal details. I didn’t know right up front this was some sort of dystopian futuristic story, and it didn’t exactly throw me off-balance, but I didn’t have a solid grip on setting.

And as a writer…what’s the best way to set the stage for your readers setting-wise, so to speak?

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4 thoughts on “Backstory…or not?

  1. It’s a good but difficult question and probably very subjective. I think I prefer a little “intrigue” that needs to be figured out. I would use Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury as an example. I was completly baffled by the first part…and then later I realized just how cool it was that we were hearing the narrations through the view of a mentally challenged person. I do think there is a difference between intrigue and making the reader curious and just being confusing. Too much “i dont get it” will frustrate me and I might (well not likely) put the book down. In your example though I dont think I would enjoy any confusion on the setting or the world it’s taking place in as that might detract from the characters and their stories. Hmm so I guess I just gave you “no answer” to your question…sorry LOL

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    1. No, I don’t think it was really a “no answer.” More of an qualified answer, which is really all I can expect. We’re talking about writing, after all. There are no absolutes. I’m enjoying the story, so it’s not confusing enough to put the book down…it’s just confusing enough to keep me a bit off-balance. One of the books I did read recently was almost confusing enough for me to put it down. In the end, the only thing that stopped me was the humor. There were some great funny bits, so I kept reading…I guess I struggle with the backstory/setting issue in my own writing. I write fantasy, so I want the reader to have enough info to be grounded in the story world, but I don’t want to bore them to death with the minutiae. I think I actually tend to write more on the lean side in first draft than I used to, so I have to go back in revisions and add in some detail.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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  2. Hmmm…as a reader, I think there is a fine line. I need to know enough to keep me interested. I need to ‘not know’ enough to remain curious. If by a hundred and fifty pages, I’m still completely baffled, I’m likely to put the book down. Then again, I hate when an author treats me like I’m stupid and feels the need to spell out every single thing. Like I said…fine line.

    As a writer it’s also a fine line. I discovered a little while ago (with the help of an editor friend) that if you find yourself getting bogged down in backstory, simply because it HAS to be told in order to help the reader understand…then maybe the back story is a complete story and needs to be a separate book. Maybe even the first book!

    I guess that’s kind of what you already said though, right?

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    1. Too much backstory is definitely a killer for me, too. If I feel like I should be reading one of those “What has gone on before…” chapters, my attention is likely to wander badly. But I don’t like to be completely lost, either. Not that this book has totally lost me. Just that I’m still more than a little uncertain about the world. Trying to figure that part of it out tends to distract me from the actual story.

      As a writer…I’m still working on this skill. I’m getting better at that fine line, but I still have a lot to learn.

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