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Layering Backstory to Create Conflict

Last time, we discussed how to avoid backstory plot holes. This week, we offer ideas for layering backstory into your plot to create conflict.

1. You can reveal your protagonist's critical flaw by explaining something that happened in the past. The critical flaw is revealed near the beginning to explain why Dick is drawn into the story problem and trips him up along the way. The flaw, his kryptonite, can stem from a traumatic episode from the past.

2. The secret weapon is revealed early on to explain why Dick, and only Dick, can solve the overall story problem. It can be a talent, strength of character, belief, or an actual object. You can show him using his secret weapon, or refusing to use it, in the past before he is called upon to use it in the present.

3. Whatever skills or failings Dick has, don't whip them out at the last minute by saying, "Oh, yeah, back in school I used to (fill in the blank)." That is backfilling and it is a no-no.

4. Backstory can raise questions rather than answer them. You can show Dick doing or saying something in the past, but not explain why. Mystery keeps the reader invested.

5. Backstory can be revealed in layers, like peeling an onion. Each reveal adds a slightly different twist to the reader's understanding of what happened. Write the backstory then select the bits you want to reveal and order them in the most effective sequence. Slip them in when needed.

6. If Dick did something in the past, he can repeat the action or find himself in the same dilemma in the present day, only there is an obstacle this time. His old method no longer works or he knows better now and this time it's uncomfortable.

7. Backstory can create conflict for Dick by presenting him with difficult choices. In the past, the decision might have been easy. The current situation, or new knowledge, makes the same choice more difficult.

8. Backstory can reveal change. If Dick is afraid of spiders because he was bitten by one as a child, he may have to take on the giant spiders that invaded Earth at the climax. If Dick was a coward in the past, he can be brave in the present. If Dick denied his feelings in the past, he can embrace them in the present.

Stay tuned for our wrap-up on how to use backstory effectively.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. A clear and concise post, Diana. Helpful. Thanks.

  2. Backstory is an IV drip. We didn't learn WHY Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes until the third (I think) movie, but when he freaked out at the snake in the plane at the beginning of the first movie, we knew there would have to be a confrontation later. And we 'bought' that this mild mannered archaeology professor could handle the tough stuff because we saw him dealing with the adventure side of things in the opening scene.

  3. Love this post, Diana! Backstory brings depth to the present, but its presentation can make or break a book. Doling it out bit by bit, all the while keeping the reader engaged, gives the character(s) dimension and adds interest in addition to creating mystery. I look forward to your post on using it effectively to round out the story.

  4. I've found it interesting in my series to layer in the backstory, all the while remembering that the book should stand on its own. I don't like when a good part of the previous story is dumped in, leaving the reader who didn't read the earlier books flummoxed about what happened. To me that's a tease. If you're going to layer in the backstory, make it so the reader understands what went on in full without it becoming pages and pages of explanation.

    1. I agree. Deborah Crombie does this really well. So does Tasha Alexander and Anna Huber. Done well, you get the gist without being bogged down in detail. I picked up Crombie's series on book 8 or 9, then went back to one through 7. I already knew details about the character's personal life, but it didn't ruin my enjoyment while I caught up.

  5. Great tips as usual, Diana. And I loved the example Terry left about the IV drip. That was a good illustration of your point to dole out the important back story and not do an info dump.

    Revealing just enough of the back story in a stand-alone novel is just as important as in a series. We all know that things in our past impact our present, and that is true with fictional characters as well.


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