Monday, April 6, 2015

Thoughts on Backstory

Does the reader need a detailed explanation of your character’s background in the first pages?

No. When you meet someone for the first time you usually don’t tell them your entire life story. As you get to know the person, the background comes in bits and pieces. So it is when writing. When you’re starting out, you as the author need to know everything about your character, so it’s okay to write those “expositional info dumps”, but you probably will not use everything in the story and certainly not all at once.

One of the best examples of revealing backstory is Dean Koontz’ Icebound, an adventure thriller. He feeds us tidbits as we read through the entire book—not revealing what the traumatic event was that makes the protagonist Rita Carpenter afraid of ice and snow—until the very end. 

The first hint comes on page 31: In fact, she’d driven herself to return repeatedly to those polar regions primarily because she was afraid of them. Since the winter when she was six years old, Rita had stubbornly refused to surrender to any fear, ever again, no matter how justified surrender might be…

And so on—a little hint here and another one there, gradually filling in the backstory. It’s not until page 378 and then page 384 that we get the longest flashbacks that tells us exactly what happened to her at age six (only 1-2 pages long each).

Another example of needing some backstory is Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. Her father slaughters lambs, she tries to save one. The story continues with her need to be recognized, a need for a father figure, the need to do right. The backstory in this case sets up the emotional needs and fears of the character.

  •   Character histories should always be relevant to the action at hand
  •    Histories should be kept brief. Find a way to break it up over the course of the action
  •    Use a trigger—a song, a smell, something that reminds the character of something or someone and sends him/her back into the past. Create a scene with dialogue, action, etc. Then trigger the character back into the present (the song ends, someone asks a question, etc.) You must account for time passing
  •     Avoid flashbacks during an action/conflict scene. It stops the flow and bumps the reader out of the height of the action 

What is your opinion of the best way to use back story?


Shared by Heidi M. Thomas. A native Montanan, Heidi now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, have just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.


  1. I like your explanation that we don't dump all our backstory to someone we meet off the street. Great way to explain it!

  2. I've read a lot (and written a few) first chapter info dumps. This is especially tempting in historical, SciFi, and fantasy fiction. I suggest writing everyone's backstory down to get it out of the way. Tell yourself what happened and why it is important. Highlight the crucial parts and insert a dollop where needed. Cross the points off as you make them so you don't repeat yourself. It should inform character, cause conflict, or impart critical information.

  3. One of my beta readers for my first book pointed out an info dump that I hadn't even realized was there. Since then, I've been a lot more careful about interspersing tidbits throughout the book rather than creating a detail overload that distracts the reader from the meat of the story. Like Diana said, all that's needed is "a dollop."

  4. Best advice I got was "Imagine you're at a cocktail party, talking to a stranger. How much are you going to tell him/her during the first minutes of your conversation?" Back story should be an IV drip, not tube feeding. Ask yourself, "Does the reader need to know this?" And then, "Does the reader need to know this NOW?"

  5. I agree with Terry, drip feed the backstory in if you can, and use dialogue as the device to do it too if possible. That way the reader doesn't feel like they've endured a massive info dump.

  6. This is really a timely post for me. My new book has a short info dump at the beginning. Here are the first three sentences:

    In twenty-two years of marriage, I never cheated on my husband. That changed when I met Neal Trainor.

    Let me back up.

    Then there's a short reason why she's about to commit the indiscretion, which, by the way, is the title of the book.

    I think I'll do some cutting though. :-)

  7. It's so tempting to include too much backstory!

  8. An author without Koontz's mastery of fiction should be wary of holding off the major element of the backstory until the very end. At best, it appears coy. At worst, cheating and poor writing. Either way, you've alienated readers who will either toss the book against the wall or won't buy your next book.

    Writing out backstory for yourself is a good idea. If you have a bad guy or guys working against your hero, it's a good idea to write out both their backstory--motivation and why and when they do what they do so their actions make sense instead of being a convenience of the story.

    One thing I like to stress to my writing students is that readers need surprisingly little backstory to make sense of what is happening as long as you select the RIGHT backstory elements.

  9. I've been stumped in plotting my WIP, my debut novel. The problem was I had three different timelines and the way I was headed at the time, would have made the entire novel backstory. Then, my roommate, said to me, "Why don't you take them as separate books, and tie them into a series? You were going to have them as a series anyway, so don't complicate it too much." Wow..she was so right. She is a very avid reader, but not a writer. She has helped me a lot and will be my first reader. She has no problem telling me the truth, not sugar coat it. :) So, I am going to try it that way. If it doesn't work, once I have the first draft, I can tweek it. Thanks for this post on backstory. I needed to understand this.


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