Monday, January 24, 2011


I find backstory "suggestions" to be very conflicting. I've heard we shouldn't have backstory in the first three chapters, but when I read published work there it is smack dab in the middle of chapter one. So read the following with care and know that there are no set rules in writing, it's more like guidelines.

There are some things to consider when thinking about backstory. It should never take precedence from the front story, or keep from moving the story forward. If the reader is constantly looking at the rearview mirror for glimpse of what's back there, then perhaps you should start there before they crash.

Since more times than not we are beginning the story in medias res, ahem...fancy way of saying middle; backstory information is important for the reader. It should be filtered into our stories only if it's relevant at that moment, or if it eludes to something that is relevant for that moment. Confused? Good, we're both in the same boat. I'll try to explain.

When thinking about adding backstory consider how it relates to plot and how it relates to character. Again, if you haven't figured it out by now, January is my Character brainstorming month, so I'll focus on how it relates to Character.

If you've never done a character sheet, I would recommend you do one. You can find 'em all over the internet. If you need help finding ideas for one, you can shoot me an email. I've seen writers use journals, fact sheets, and collages to do a character profile. Basically, it's everything you need to know about your character and most things you don't need to know. I personally love the idea of collages. It helps get into the character's head/voice while writing.

Most of the stuff you'll write will never make it on the page, and that's perfectly fine. The reader doesn't need to know all of it. The purpose of backstory, and please correct me if I'm wrong anyone out there in the big blue, is to offer the reader a glimpse of causality (cause & effect). I'm pretty sure I read this somewhere and can't remember where. And to show snippets of information relevant in the moment.

Our brilliantly written manuscripts are bulging with cause & effect circumstances. This happened, so the result is this. Backstory can be used to enhance that cause & effect relationship when the information, though important, is not totally domineering the plot.

And/or show snippets of information relevant in the moment.
An example: The red satchel reminded me of the one mom used to hit me upside the head with whenever I called my brother dumb.

Backstory, memory, we are looking at a review mirror here. It is short and sweet and can be a relevant source of information to show the reader the relationship between  MC and mom, and MC and brother, or even MC's fear of red satchels.  It should be relevant to the current moment or trashed.

Sometimes, we leave the thought in midair and the reader is left scratching his head wondering what the hell was that about. Ahem, I only speak for myself of course. We try to create suspense by leaving the reader having to guess what the relationship is. Sometimes, this may not be a good thing. We want to keep the reader reading and understanding what's going on, but if that red satchel appeared on page five, and the reader was given nothing as to its relevance, when something happens on page thirty, you are going to have to remind us again what's the relevance. 

And there you have it, Character development through backstory...kinda. What do you think?  Do you have any guidelines pertaining to backstory you would like to share?


  1. Backstory in small doses works for me. I like knowing where my character is coming from, and his past experiences helps me understand who he is today. I put in one or two liners in those first three chapters. Sometimes more. It doesn't slow the story down and it helps with my character development. I'm a firm believer in the saying 'everything in moderation'.

  2. When I include backstory in my stories, I hint at my characters' pasts in the beginning, and then I elaborate later on in the story. If the backstory isn't important to the plot, I usually cut it out during revisions.

  3. JRR Tolkien sure took backstory to another level, didn't he? You offer good points and good advice. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Small doses usually work and you are right Heather we can chop it off later.

    Tolkien is not the only one, but, um...I guess that's where the "guidelines" come to play. LOL

    thanks for your comments.

  5. I know what you mean about backstory...I think I was reading the second Harry Potter book, and JK Rowling did a huge info dump/summary of Harry's background pretty early on. I was like...why are you summarizing the first book like that? We KNOW Harry isn't an ordinary little boy...and yes, we know he's a wizard that was recruited to's frustrating to see the rules broken in published works, but at the same time it's great for me to have guidelines in place while I'm still learning :) Thanks for the post!

  6. No Problem Jess. We probably won't have to worry about so many "guidelines" once we get published. LOL.


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