How do I not overload background into my stories? Story Success Clinic

Bright Orange background with a book for How do I not overload background into my stories? Story Success Clinic

Orange background and quote from How do I not overload background in my stories?

How do I not overload background into my stories? Story Success Clinic – How To Write the Future podcast, episode 90


“Stories are dynamic. Stories need to have action, movement. Stories need to have goals that the character is trying to pursue.”

In this Story Success Clinic session, How To Write Future podcast host, Beth Barany, answers one the biggest questions she’s often asked as a writing coach “How do I not overload background into my stories?” and uses the start of a paranormal fantasy novel by Barbarella Haymaker as an example to talk through the summary and walk-through a live edit.

Platforms The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Buzzsprout | Spotify | Podcast Addict |Amazon Music | Youtube


12-month Group Mastermind Program for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers – open for enrollment: 

Free World Building Workbook for Fiction Writers:

Sign up for the 30-minute Story Success Clinic with Beth Barany:

Get support for your fiction writing by a novelist and writing teacher and coach. Schedule an exploratory call here and see if Beth can support you today:

About the How To Write the Future podcast 

The *How To Write The Future* podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive futures and successfully bring those stories out into the marketplace. Hosted by Beth Barany, science fiction novelist and creativity coach for writers. We cover tips for fiction writers. This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.

This podcast is for you if you have questions like:

– How do I create a believable world for my science fiction story?

– How do figure what’s not working if my story feels flat?

– How do I make my story more interesting and alive?

This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.

Transcript for How do I not overload background into my stories? Story Success Clinic

Hey, everyone, Beth Barany here for How to Write the Future Podcast. Today, I am going to do a critique of someone’s opening of their story. They couldn’t be here live with me due to technical issues, but I will share with you what her comments and questions are as we move forward.

And just a reminder about who I am. I am a science fiction and fantasy writer and a writing teacher. I specialize in helping science fiction and fantasy writers craft their stories and polish them to a sheen, so they can publish them. And I do that through my Coaching Mastermind program. And you can find out more about that in the description.

This podcast, How to Write the Future, is really designed to help you get better at your craft so that you can write stories readers love to read.

I also run this podcast because I believe that through story we can re-envision who we are and how the world could be. Because when we vision what is possible, we help make it so.

And we do that through words and we do that through emotion, and we do that through sights and sounds and all the sensory details that make stories come alive.

All right, so let’s dive in because one of the biggest questions I have been getting is how do I not overload background into my stories?

Lots of people are asking me that. So let’s dive in.

I am looking at the content, the opening of a story from Barbarella Haymaker and her story –

Let’s see. What can I tell you about her story?

It is a world, a deep world that she has developed. It’s a YA paranormal mystery series with a great cast of characters and a sweeping plot.

So we’re going to look at the beginning and let’s get started.

So she started her story off with a dream sequence, and then we have the opening.

So I elected to actually skip over the dream sequence for today’s critique and look just at the opening.

Oh, I need to turn on track changes. There we go. Now, here is the first sentence.

“Tia, it’s your move, Tia?”

Now, I actually like this dialogue line as an opening sentence because it’s short. I get a sense they’re playing a game, and I assume Tia is our main character.

And I admit, I do know that from reading the dream sequence, and I think even if I hadn’t read the dream sequence, and the story started here, which is actually what I recommend to you, Barbarella, it would be clear to me.

So I’m doing two things when I’m doing this edit.

I am coming at this fresh, meaning I don’t have her story notes. I don’t even have a story summary. I only know that it’s a YA paranormal mystery.

And so let’s read the second sentence.

I’m going to highlight it and zoom in a little.

“I stared at the ancient-looking hand-carved Tamarisk wood chess board, which sat on a small round pedestal table between me and the board’s owner. Marcus was my best friend and confidant.”

All right, so I read two sentences.

I’m going to say that this sentence here, 24 words, that’s not too long, but it felt a little long to me.

I love this detail: “ancient looking, hand carved, tamarisk wood chess board.”

To me, that was evocative, even though I don’t know what tamarisk what that means if that relates to some culture. I’m willing to be open to learning what that is later. The part that I feel bogged the sentence down is all the details about the table.

I would rather have fewer details like maybe take out the word pedestal. “a small round table between me and the board’s owner.”

And I would like to know Marcus. I would like his name to be right here at the end of the sentence.

And then, that’s great. “Marcus was my best friend and confidant.”

That’s lovely.

So now, I have this chess board in the center view and I get that she’s across the table from her best friend and confidant.

Okay. So now I have a warm feeling and I’m wondering what is next.

Okay, so I’m going to read the next few sentences.

“The style of chess games we play is unique.”

Okay, a few things jump out at me with this one sentence.

One, I’m being told about the style of chess games, but I feel like I’m being popped out of the moment. I’m expecting this next step, her move.

Instead of getting her move, I am now getting information, which without context in the beginning of a story it jumps me out of the story.

And it also jumps me – I have no reference point.

Well, that’s not true. I do know what chess is and I know how to play the game. So when you tell me this is unique, that’s interesting. I have to admit that’s interesting, but it doesn’t feel relevant to what I am expecting, which is: what is the next move?

And the next sentence takes me out of the story too. “Mark taught me five years ago when I was eight. It was complicated, but after a few games, I figured out the extra steps.”

So I would just take all of this out and I would put it somewhere else in the story.

I’m actually going to delete it so it lives in the deleted comments.

I want to know what’s next. So where is what is next? And I’m still getting more information about how the game is played.

So this whole paragraph, I’ve already read it. I know it’s still backstory. So far, what I deleted was backstory, and so is this next paragraph.

Because it’s explaining how the game is played. I’d rather see the game being played than being told how the game is played. That way you can do that. You can teach the reader how the game is being played without slowing down the action.

So here we go.

“After a player makes a move, their opponent is required to answer a question truthfully.”

Now that’s really interesting.

I would love to see that in action. “There are three ways to win. By checkmate. If the opponent refused to answer or by forfeit.”

So those are the three ways again. I’m being explained, but I’m not being shown. “Mark told me once that the chessboard recorded every game on it.”

Now that’s fascinating. Again, show that to me in action.

“As old as it looks, that knowledge contained within must be enormous.”

Yes, that’s fascinating. And you might want to leave this… Again, I want to see that in action. And then we have this sentence: “I still have yet to beat the now 18-year-old.”

So I’m assuming, Marcus is 18. And if that’s the case, I want to be told that right up here.

Just tell me. Just add it to the description.

“18-year-old Marcus was my best friend and confidant.”

Now, I don’t want to be told how this game works. I want to be shown how this game works. So if this game, let’s see, let’s look back into the notes.

If three ways to win by checkmate, if the opponents refuse to answer by forfeit.

Okay, so Tia is being asked a question. She’s staring at the chessboard. She’s across the table from her best friend. I want her to answer the question. Answer the question.

So what might Tia say here?

Maybe she says: “What?”

Because that’s often what we say when we’re not really keyed in.

And then, he can ask, and he doesn’t need to say her name again because they’re best friends. Best friends usually don’t. People who are intimate with each other as friends, and more, they often don’t say each other’s names unless they’re trying to get each other’s attention.

So he could ask, you could even say: “Marcus asked, “Do you still have nightmares?'”

Now, something that would be fun to add here is a little bit more about Marcus. Is he an energetic person? Is he a very still person? You could describe a movement that he makes and use the environment here.

I don’t know anything about Marcus, so I’m going to leave it blank.

We have Tia shrugging. And I’d rather say: “I shrugged.” That’s more, actually, more active, ironically than the I N G.

E D: it gives us a sense of action, whereas I N G, we’re often trying to convey an action happening at the same time something else is happening, and that isn’t necessary most of the time.

So let’s have her answer. “I shrugged. I doubt I will ever have a night without them. The dream changes sometimes. I’ve had a couple of times where items like books and pictures floated around the room, which makes no sense.”

So, without the reader knowing anything about her nightmares, I feel like she’s nonchalant here like it’s no big deal, which maybe is what she is conveying.

And dreams don’t make sense, so… it’d be interesting if Marcus said something here about the dreams.

If you are going to open your story with a dialogue, really make it a give-and-take.

And I’ll read one more paragraph for the purpose of our critique.

“Moving my queen out of harm’s way, I asked, feeling the uneasiness of my friend. What is really worrying you, Marcus?”

I’m going to pause here. We have the statement, “Feeling the uneasiness of my friend.” So if he is really uneasy, I want to see that.

How do people show they are uneasy?

One way they do it is they roll their shoulders. Or they frown, or they roll their shoulders and they frown.

So I added in three physical actions:

Marcus rolled his shoulders and frowned, not meeting my eye.

So now we have three actions that all convey something is wrong. Something is not sitting right with him. And when we don’t meet the eye of our friend, that’s a clear indication, usually, that we are holding something back. Because when we look into each other’s eyes, we see things.

So now you don’t have to tell me that the main character is feeling the uneasiness. 

You can just have them ask.

Now, I like this little action about the game.

But again, I recommend that you just say: “I moved my queen out of harm’s way and asked, “What is really worrying you, Marcus?”

Now, we don’t know what we think was worrying Marcus unless we have him say something.

We could have him say, “I’m concerned about you.” Earlier. Or we could just say,” I’m concerned.”

It’s implied it’s about her. And now we know that he’s concerned for his friend and her nightmares, and then she’s nonchalant about the dreams, and he could say something. So here you could have him say something, or you can have him do something and the doing of the something is his physical action.

We want a response here. Response from Marcus.

And by deed, I mean action.

Because stories are dynamic. Stories need to have action, movement. Stories need to have goals that the character is trying to pursue.

And I have to say, by this point in the story, I really don’t know what Tia wants. I’m assuming she’s also 18, although you haven’t told us, so I don’t know. I do know it’s a young adult because you told me that ahead of time. Let me just finish this paragraph, because I want to know.

“Looking carefully over the layout of the board, my silver eyes lit up.”

Okay, so, several things. She cannot see herself unless she’s looking in a mirror. And again, we’re having this looking over carefully. This is simultaneous action. It’s really better and more powerful if you, and I’m just going to do this for simple reasons if you just use simple past tense.

And let’s use a different verb because looking is way overused.

“I glanced over the layout of the board.”

Now, what can we do to show that it’s careful?

We could say, taking my time.

Now because she can’t see her eyes light up. She can’t see her own eyes, but again she could see them in a reflection, what is another way you could show delight?

You could say she smiled because she cannot see her own eyes.

“By the way, I believe that is Check!” I watched his face, wondering if he would forfeit rather than tell me.”

If we take out the description of the game, you can tell us right here.

“Those were the rules. He had to answer my question or forfeit.”

So now we’re using what’s called exposition to explain a little bit about the game, but we’re right inside of the game. So now it is appropriate. We could take out wondering, so just make this more direct. And instead of, I watched his face, just say, I watched him.

We are always watching each other’s faces.

Then you could say, would he forfeit? Instead of tell me, maybe answer my question.

Those are the rules. He had to answer my question or forfeit.

“The smile curved his lips but did not reach his eyes.”

Now, I like this. It’s understandable. And I would question in edits if I wanted to keep it like this, or you could say… There’s a few different ways you could say it. And the reason I want to edit this is because you’re telling me too many things.

We as readers can envision. Give us some room to envision things. So you could say:

His smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Or you could say:

He smiled. I want to say a sad smile. a fake smile, and tell us: but sadness filled his gaze.

Something like that. You can tell me what she’s reading in his expression.

Alright, so I’m going to stop here. Barbarella. I hope this helped.

Some takeaways from this in summary is take out anything that takes us away from the moment.

That backstory you had in explaining the game, you can still use when you’re inside of showing the game in action.

All right, that’s it for this week. If you would like your piece edited on the podcast, and the edits will show up on video on YouTube, then, go ahead and sign up for your own Story Success Clinic.

Science fiction and fantasy writers, if you would like to transform your draft into a publish-ready masterpiece, then check out our Coaching Mastermind 12-month program for dedicated writers.

I invite you to check it out, see if it’s a good fit for you, reach out with any questions. We are now accepting new members.

All right, everyone, that’s it for now. See you next week. Write long and prosper.


Loved this episode? Leave us a review and rating here:


Image of Beth Barany

Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”


Learn more about Beth Barany at these sites: 


Author siteCoaching site / School of Fiction / Writer’s Fun Zone blog


Contact Beth:









For more “How To Write the Future” episodes, go here.

If you’d like to invite Beth onto your podcast, drop her a note here.


You may also like...