Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who Cares What Happened Before? A Look at Backstory

This post was originally published in September 2008, but still applies.


What is it? Backstory is anything that happens before the actual story takes place.

Characters think and feel and know things, but where does it all come from? What shapes their opinions and reactions? It's events and circumstances that take place before the story starts.

Often it's necessary to clue the reader in on some of these details to make it easier to understand and/or identify with the character. The temptation is to plop all the information down right away so the reader knows what's going on. Don't do it.

What you should do is dot bits and pieces of backstory throughout your manuscript.

Instead of saying Jane Doe is sad because her mother is dead, you can weave in this backstory in dribs and drabs.

Such as, when Jane Doe is looking at her garden, she can sigh and think something like If only Mom were here to enjoy the flowers. She did so love geraniums.

At some other point in the novel, Jane Doe can be watching TV and the news program will be about a fatal car crash victim. Jane will think something like, First Mom, now this poor soul. When will people learn not to drink and drive?

Another way to weave in backstory is through conversation, but again be careful not to spill the beans and tell it all right away.

John Doe comes home early and sees his wife staring wanly out the window at the flower garden. He comes up to her and says, "Jane, why so sad?"

"They remind me so much of Mom. She so loved her geraniums."

"She loved you more. She wouldn't want you to be miserable that she's gone. "

You get the idea. Let the reader go on a discovery journey and want to read more and more to find out what happened before and what will happen next.

Let the journey begin!

Experience the diversity & versatility of Morgan Mandel. Romantic Comedies: Her Handyman & its sequel, A Perfect Angel, or the standalone reality show romance: Girl of My DreamsThriller: Forever Young: Blessing or Curse. & its Collection Sequel: the Blessing or Curse CollectionRomantic suspense: Killer Career. Mystery: Two Wrongs. Twitter:@MorganMandel Websites: Morgan Mandel.Com Morgan Does Chick Lit.Com


  1. You're so right about backstory. It needs to be served in morsels. If you try to get the reader to eat huge chunks, they'll gag and be pulled out of the story.
    Helen Ginger

  2. Ah backstory. What is too much? What is too little? Walking the tightrope to find this balance is tricky at times. Sometimes I try to sneak it in through another character's POV. Thanks for the post, Morgan. A good reminder.

  3. I see your point about how to present information. How much recapping of character development should be done with a trilogy? Is it better to add different tidbits in each book or present the same knowledge in different ways?

  4. Good post Morgan. Must go Twitter about back story now. LOL.


  5. And then there's the backstory the author is sure everyone needs to know immediately--aka the prologue. On the other side, there's the backstory the author holds out from us teasing us throughout the whole novel with some BIG secret that she refuses to reveal until the end. Backstory's always a tricky thing to get just right.

    Sara Daniel

  6. Stopping by on the way home from vacation.
    Thanks for all who have commented so far.
    Elliott - I'd apply backstory on a need to know
    basis for each novel in a trilogy.
    Don't include everything if it doesn't move the plot forward.

  7. The "show not tell" concept of writing. Love it. And, it is so much fun to teach this to aspiring writers when they ask for an edit. I end up tutoring and doing part of the rewrite just to ensure that good writing prevails as the author continues to wield the mighty pen.

  8. Morgan, you're absolutely right about not loading the story down with backstory. Most of it can be cut. I think reading a mystery novel is a good exercise in realizing what can be cut, what needs to stay.

    Usually, as you said, less is more.

    A very pertinent writing tip!

  9. This is SO very important. I'm editing a novel now that is absolutely laced throughout with backstory that the reader never needs to know. In the end, the WRITER should know all things - the reader should know what he/she needs to know to get through the story AND enjoy it!

  10. Dear Morgan,
    Thank you for answering my question. With Book three I only recapped if it clarified the situation that the characters were involved with at the moment. Since my tale begins shortly after the Korean war I try to parcel out background sparingly to avoid redundancy.
    thank you again

  11. I guess you should think of backstory as a spice..too much and it ruins the soup...too little and there's no flavor.

    thanks for the great post, Morgan.

  12. A great example of a spare backstory (my idea of backstory, btw) is demonstrated in the movie 'Pale Rider'. At the end of the movie Clint Eastwood's character, Preacher confronts John Russell's character, Marshall Stockton. Stockton obviously recognizes Preacher, but all he says is, 'You!' The viewer is left to guess at their relationship ... love it.

  13. Great ways to work bits of backstory seamlessly in without infringing on the present or creating an information dump.

    1. Thanks, Linda. It's so tempting to just dump, instead of letting readers guess.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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