Sunday, May 11, 2014

BACKSTORY - the foundation of your novel

Backstory, Part One - Do's and Don'ts.

Writers DO need to know the backstory. Backstory is what happened to your characters before Page 1. Characters, like real people, are the result of what has gone before. As the author, you need to know their triumphs, their failures, their goals and their families. Skipping that knowledge as a writer, isn't a good plan.

Readers DON'T need the full backstory, especially in the beginning. Throughout the novel they  will see the results of history in the actions, beliefs and choices of the characters. Parts of the backstory may then be revealed on a strictly ‘need-to-know’ basis.

All too often beginning writers fill the first few scenes or chapters with all that happens leading up to the book, or they put in an incident from the past explaining things. These DO need to be written but DO NOT need to be in the book in the beginning, if at all.

Have you ever met someone new who jumped right in and started telling you about their miserable childhood, their terrible home life, their nasty school experiences and—about this point you leave to refill your glass and you never go back.

In real life, histories are not shared in a first meeting. So why would we share everything when we meet a character for the first time?

We may know people for years and still not tell them all our stories. They learn who we are though our current actions. For books, the rule is the same: do not dump everything that explains your character into the first chapter. It’s too much, too soon and leaves nothing for the reader to discover.

Start the story by grounding the reader in the character’s present day. As you proceed, give your readers credit for the ability to read between the lines.

Jan Heroine, normally assertive and in control, becomes tongue tied around a tall, authoritative woman. The reader now wonders why, may suspect a negative history with female authority figure and continues reading to find out. Even when the answer is revealed, Ms. Reader doesn’t necessarily need all of the nitty-gritty details.

Use the show and tell method to build to a minor reveal. Show three occurrences of the behavior spaced throughout the story. Let the events unfold without explanation until an explanation is imperative. In the end, make a brief reference explaining why the character has that behavior.

Revelations can come in various ways. You can plant clues or explain succinctly all at once. But beware the dreaded information dump. If Tom stops to tell Mary that Sue grew up poor—yadda yadda for two pages - his reveal will dump your reader out of the story.

Keep the reveal simple and relevant to the action.

Writers – know your backstory. Use it to add texture and reality to your story. Remember the ‘rest of the story’ isn't always necessary. When bits are needed, weave them in to enhance, not stop, the flow of action.

Part Two - Revealing Backstory - Flashbacks and more...Coming soon.


  1. A very good article Mahrie. I have heard that first time writers can often throw out the first three chapters of their story. I have a question though - what if a past event - leads to what is happening (for example - spending time in jail) - should that be weaved into the story or revealed at the beginning?

  2. Thanks Mahrie, I like the use of three occurences. I'm gathering hints and tips for my creative writing class, it really helps to find such practical advice.

    1. Elaine - enjoy your teaching - I've taught writing craft for over 20 years - it is the best way to learn the craft. Breaking things down and then reassembling so you can explain to others helps us understand. My teaching has been creative writing, novel writing, mystery writing and (sigh) writing clearly for business. Many of my previous posts are writing hints as well. Trust you find them useful.