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Backstory for a Short Story is not a Short Backstory

You would think, wouldn’t you, that backstory was less important for shorter works. But you’d be wrong! Sometimes what went before is everything, and especially in the case of science fiction or fantasy, you’ve still got a lot o’ world-building to do.

But first off, let’s bring it on back a bit. I’m not going to pretend that you have to put as much work into the backstory of a shorter piece as you do for a novel. For example, when you’re creating the background to your characters, there’s a lot less to do. You have less characters in a short story. Do the math, as they say in the United States of America (or “calculate, via the medium of mathematics,” in the United Kingdoms of Elizabeth II).

No, it’s the longer view – the world building, that takes up your time. I’m writing (veeery slooooowly writing) a series of sci-fi short stories at the moment, and time and again I realise the thin layer of backstory I have when I start simply isn’t enough.

The Housekeeping Robot

What's this guy's story?

Having enough to provide the situation for the story proper is not won’t cut it. I think it’s enough, but as I write, and I add more detail to the present, I find it growing flimsy under my fingers. I become dissatisfied, nay grumpy, as my story begins to feel like it’s written on toilet paper, ready to shred apart at the next line of ink.

So how much backstory do you need? That’s hard to quantify, and it may be different for every case. But the only answer I have is that there has to be enough for it to feel real. I’ll try to break this down a bit.

The Whoppers

Let’s start with the grand aspects of your world that feature heavily in the story. Say your story involves an alien species living alongside humans. That is a big deal and it will likely take some time to figure out their backstory. What do they look like? What is their culture like? Are there any particular reasons for this? What about their technology? How do all of the above relate?

Such questions will likely lead to more, or at least to some further useful details such as their home planet, which may well have had a huge effect on all of the above.

Enough? No!

Perhaps more important to your story is the race’s relationship to humankind. When was first contact established? In what manner? How does the alien culture affect the way they see humankind and visa-versa? Maybe your current story requires some distrust of one species or another, or some fascination – why is this?

It’s worth mentioning that your story might hinge entirely on a piece of backstory that is revealed during the climax. Of course it goes without saying that this needs to be pretty well fleshed out. Crucially for this set up, the reveal should feel like the discovery of a puzzle piece – it must fit in with what we have been told about the world throughout the course of the story. Otherwise it may feel like a cheap trick.

The Details

The rest I guess is about the details. That’s not to say that this has to be an easy ride. You can go as deep as you want here.

You want to give enough details so that places, people, objects feel real, but you don’t want to bury the reader in trivia that does not move the story forward.

The details can come from the history of a building, characters, the tools they use, the phrases they say. A spaceship may have been used to transport fuel, but has since been refitted as a makeshift hospital during a recent disaster. You might mention a piece of technology, and give it a name that implies some history – a detection system named the Groben array, after the scientist Hanz Groben, who first proved the existence of micro-gravity waves.

Knowing that elements of your world have history prevents them form appearing as if they sprang into existence. Moreover, details which you invent as incidental, tend to ripple throughout the story, changing the way the tale is told. Our hospital might have poorly used space, cavernous rooms, or bad wiring because of its history – how might that affect events in the story?

I might have mentioned I listen to a few podcasts (it would be more accurate to say I catch up with a few podcasts, given that I’m perpetually behind). This includes Clarkesworld Magazine‘s and The Escape Pod (part of the Murverse). Both narrate regular sci-fi and fantasy short-stories and I highly recommend them.

One thing that strikes me about a lot of these stories is how rich the worlds are. Just in the space of 8,000 words or so, we can see the rise and fall of empires or entire species, the terraforming of a planet, post-humanisation (then post-post-humanisation, then post-post-post…), and the list goes on. And all of this whilst still delivering a compelling narrative in the story’s present.

So yeah, don’t think you’re getting an easy ride by writing sci-fi or fantasy short works, but it can still be an enjoyable ride (and a convincing one), for you and your readers.

What’s your experience with writing backstory for shorter works? How much was enough for you, and how much actually amde it into the story proper?