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I have an idea I'm working on, where there's a huge backstory that I'm not sure how to deal with.

In my particular case, the backstory and main story are these:

The backstory begins as stereotypical “Hero” plotline, whereas a boy starts from nothing, gains companions, and goes to save the world. However, his seven companions betray him at the climax of the story where they defeat the clichéd villain that is the source of all evil in the world, who turns out to be a construct designed by his seven “companions” to gain the rest of humanities trust, requiring someone blinded by justice to act as their mask.

The "main" story begins two thousand years later, with this protagonist somehow being resurrected. His history has turned him cold, and he directly avoids the path of a hero – attempting to avoid those similar to his previous seven companions and eventually to him being the one to betray his companions themselves.

I’m currently conflicted between three different ideas:

  1. Creating an entire book or half of a book, playing out the backstory, the hero’s constructed ‘fake’ journey, as a sort of ‘Volume 0’

  2. Summarizing the backstory in a prologue (Yes, I know. ‘ugh’), where I feel I can quickly juxtapose the "heroism" of the story with the pain and shock the protagonist feels at his betrayal.

  3. Skipping the backstory, beginning the story with the protagonist having no memories, and building the world and his memories fresh.

The primary advantage of the first idea is that I don’t believe it’s been done before, and it's a dramatic, effective story. However, since the primary story I want to tell is a very different thing - it revolves more around creating a nation and the intrinsic business, economic, and technological sides of it, which is all very different from the betrayal arc – I’m unsure if it would throw the readers off too much, or bore the readers with a semi clichéd story at the start.

This issue is slightly patched in the second idea, as it’s far shorter; however I don’t know if the readers would be emotionally attached enough to the companions to feel the weight of a betrayal, where the readers wouldn’t relate fully to the main character.

In the third option however, while it would seem the most relatable and allow me to jump to the bulk of the nation building, I fear that simply jumping into the story may seem again clichéd and also confuse the reader not making them emotionally attached enough.

Of course, one option I could potentially create is simply writing option 1 for my own reference, using option 2 alongside option 3 to deepen the story, and perhaps release option 1 for further backstory.

In general, I’m wondering if there is any other cases similar to this, or at least similar to option 1.

  • 3
    Kyle, I've edited this question so that it's as focused as possible on what you're asking. Questions on the lines of "Can I do this thing" tend to get quick answers (Usually "Sure" and "Why not" :P ), but you're asking something much more specific. I hope my edits do justice to your intentions; please re-edit or comment if you have any issue with the changes I made. – Standback Jan 15 '17 at 12:05
  • Are you looking for examples? – user6035379 Jan 15 '17 at 17:49
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    @Standback Thanks for editing it! It looks far better, and you hit it spot on correcting the question I had no clue on how to ask! – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 4:54
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The questions you need to answer are:

  1. What story do I want to tell?
  2. What elements do I need to have available to tell it?

If you want to tell your backstory, and it stands alone, then you have the first book of a series, with the second book picking up some time later. This is a common approach.

But the fact that you described it as your backstory, and not as (say) the first story you want to tell, makes me suspect you're falling into the trap of believing that you need to tell your whole backstory so your readers can understand your main story. That's not the case at all. You can tell your main story and drop in references to the backstory without fully telling it. Your character can have memories (which he might be trying to suppress, creating internal conflict), or he could encounter other reminders -- other people who know or were there, artifacts, corrupted retellings of the events (think "game of telephone" times two millennia), etc. If writing your backstory isn't your primary goal, or if you don't think it will hold readers' attention as a first book, then try this approach instead.

Another approach is to just tell your main story, and if you later want to tell the backstory you can write a prequel. Especially if your main story is the one most likely to attract new readers, this approach can help you lead strong and then fill in more for readers who've already decided they're interested.

You can also combine approaches. I recently read a series with an unusual sequencing that worked. The Silo series by Hugh Howey began as a single novella set in a dystopian future. How we got there is not addressed. The story is a stand-alone work. The author, who didn't initially plan to write a whole series, then wrote several more novellas that progressed from that point, and those stories contained ample hints about the history with a big reveal that would, on its own, be satisfying had the series ended there. Then he wrote the prequels. And, finally, he wrote one story set after the events of all the previous ones that tied it all together.

You don't have to recount your events in the order in which they happened. Tell the stories you want to tell, and give your readers the information they need in order to follow and care about the story you're telling.

  • Yes! This is a perfect answer to address all of the issues I've been thinking of in relation to each idea and quells my fears in making a 'weird' choice! The Silo series seems like something I might check out for its mix of in text reveal and novellas, so thank you very much! – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 5:24
  • Just as an add on, is it too much to tag on a 'prologue' in a legend or fable at the beginning, in relation to Mark Baker's answer, and is that how a prologue should work? This is fairly relevant as the primary point of conflict is introduced when he is betrayed, leading to the following events of the book. Therefore I'm confused on how to create conflict without the protagonist himself knowing anything about the conflict? Would it be better for the protagonist to be conscious of his past but not reveal it to the reader as a reflection of his psyche, and not wanting tev? – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 5:36
  • *not wanting to accept it himself? – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 5:42
  • I agree with (and upvoted) Mark Baker's answer. That's certainly a workable approach. See his answer for more on how to do that. – Monica Cellio Jan 16 '17 at 15:22
  • This answer covered all of my suggestions! If you haven't seen it and are still working on this story, I'd recommend watching the superhero parody TV show The Tick, which features a team of popular superheroes who were defeated in a grizzly showdown-- but that's backstory, told well in a few brief snippets so that you have the information you need when they become relevant again. – wordsworth Jul 22 at 23:42
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I think the question you are really asking is, is the backstory the story you want to tell, or is it simply a fable on which the real story is based. None of us can answer that for you. If I had to guess, though, it sounds from the way you ask the question like you regard it as a fable that sets up the story you want to tell.

So then the question becomes, when does the reader of the main story want to know the fable? The general rule of backstory is you only tell as much of it as you need to and only when the reader can't go on without it.

On the other hand, because a fable is a story in its own right, and can be told very briefly, you can lead with it. A good example of this is the way Alan Garner tells the Legend of Alderley in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

The thing about a legend, though, it that it is not a character piece. It is a kind of myth. It can be told briefly because our sympathy is not with any one character, but with some mythic hope or peril. Thus the Legend of Alderley is about a company of pure knights in enchanted sleep under a hill until the time when they are needed to save England from final corruption.

Your backstory seems to have the elements of legend, so this same approach seems workable.

  • Thanks for the example! I'm thinking of heavily relying on the backstory to introduce the primary set of characters into the story, and provide early conflict so I don't info-dump so I think this might be the right answer for me. However, I plan to have the widely received 'legend' that the general population believes to be a false one constructed again by the companions of the protagonist so I suppose that was one of my main issues in attempting to handle a backstory like this! – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 5:14
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If I understood your question correctly, there is a fourth option:

Tell the main story, with small sections referring back to parts of the backstory as needed, peppered wherever it makes sense in your main story.

As preparation for doing this, you would make a careful outline of the backstory for your own use, but you would not flesh it out with lots of verbiage.

You might want to go back and make a separate book about the backstory later... but you don't have to make a decision set in stone at this time.

As you tell your main story, keep things moving, without getting too involved in tangents about the backstory. If you wish, you may even confine yourself to making hints about the backstory without fleshing things out very much.

I can't choose for you among the options. But as a reader, I can say that it can be fun to read about a character who is not a completely open book.

  • I definitely recommend considering this approach. Nonlinear narrative is not easy, but it can be very, very satisfying. (Joe Hill did this marvellously in both "Locke and Key," and "Horns." King's "It" relies heavily on this structure. Many others.) Think of it as making your backstory into a subplot. – Standback Jan 16 '17 at 5:11
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I'd be fine with your backstory as a standalone novella which functions as a prequel to your main story.

Harry Connolly did this with his Twenty Palaces series. There's a main trilogy, and then a prequel novel about how the main character came to be where he was at the start of the trilogy. The prequel is helpful but not necessary to understand the trilogy.

If you read the Chronicles of Narnia in internal chronological order rather than publication order, The Magician's Nephew is the first book and deals with the creation of Narnia. It's set before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and the other five books).

The Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke is similar but not precisely identical. The first book, Rendezvous with Rama, sets up the arrival of the spaceship Rama at Earth. The next three in the series center on the adventures of one family who are (I think — it's been a while) mentioned in the first book, and they are set several decades later.

  • Thank you so much for these examples! This is exactly what I was thinking of for option 1, a prequel style novella that describes events in detail. It was the chronological order that confused me, while it would be more impactful to the start of the actual text to write as an initial piece - I feared that it would seem boring due to its nature as a generic 'hero' story, so writing it afterward may be more beneficial as interesting links between the original text and the prequel can be created! – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 5:20
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Don't worry

If the idea appeals to you, then go ahead and do it. There will be no issues as long as you write well. Out of the three options, choose the one you like the best.

Can I just say, you can't just make them 'betray' them just like that. It needs to be foreshadowed, machinated, built up and calculated to have the best effect.

I am sure this idea would be thrilling to read!

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    I agree that any betrayal requires a build up, and that's exactly why I was so conflicted between the choices! Thanks for the support in the idea however! – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 5:25
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Think of all the "main" stories (especially those that were made into movies) that became very popular and were followed by prequels. The prequels were justified, in most cases, because only glimpses and hints of the "backstory" were made during the telling of the "main" story. This, in no way, detracted from the readers' enjoyment of the story.

The "Star Wars" franchise is a perfect example of a "main story", "Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker"(pub. Ballantine, 1st ed. 1976) (aka. "Star Wars, ep.IV: A New Hope"), being written in such a way.

  • This is actually fairly relevant, never thought of prequels in this way! – Kyle Li Jan 16 '17 at 4:58
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Personally, I'd be leery of writing a book with an ending in which the good guy is betrayed, fails and dies, which is your back story. If evil prevails, then I would prefer to refer to it later.

Similarly I would not write a book length backstory in which my hero is just drifting with the current and has no really big goal other than going along with others: That sounds like what happened in your backstory, since your MC was deceived and betrayed. The MC was not in control, basically.

You can handle a backstory with a new trusted companion, which it sounds like your character can have. The companion is the foil so the MC can explain their tragic history. The companion can be a romantic interest or friend or traveling companion. The backstory is told to explain the MC actions when they are contrary to what the companion expects, or flesh out the MC personality in pieces or stories told during idle hours: Traveling, bedding down for the night, pillow talk after sex, etc. You have a person to ask the MC questions. Just don't go on for pages, make sure you answer as anybody would tell their own story; two or three paragraphs that provide the details needed for the foil (and the reader) to understand the MC better.

0

As fantasy writers, we all have to build our own worlds, and it can get tedious. I know that many writers have what they call "bibles" just to keep track of everything because, as you pointed out, you have to decide everything down to how the economy runs, but, remember, only you need to know the inner workings of your world. Your job is to both create the world, which you have obviously done an excellent job of, and to also make it exciting.

It's all about the characters and the plot that moves them from one place to the next. The world that you build is simply the stage, but don't worry, without that stage, including the foundation no one else sees, the story wouldn't have anything to move on.

As for your other characters that have developed voices of their own, allow yourself the freedom to write their stories, but leave them in their first draft state so that you can focus on your main character's quest. This gives you the ability to "get it out" so to speak but not distract you from your goal. Also, there will be something tangible to go back to if you need it. Just don't allow your main story's plot be dictated by these short stories. Think of them as folk lore if you need to so that the main plot doesn't become overly complicated.

Hope this helps

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I like the third option as there are chances for writing interesting events/interactions with the elements of the story to reveal the past and then move on to the main plot. With each interaction you get certain information, which can be pieced together to get the complete picture. It’s like trying to put together pieces of broken glass together, as you find pieces you fit them, but not always you will get the correct piece to fit, you have to pick the right piece or search for the right one, but you won't discard the piece found because it not needed right now, you'll keep it aside so that it can be used later. Once you get all the pieces you can stick the glass together. I hope this is helpful.

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