Thursday, April 21, 2011

Backstory: How Much To Add And When To Add It

So this is my first official post as a member of the For The Love Of Writing Team. *Snoopy dance* Originally, I wasn’t planning on doing a blog as a member until May, when the blog was scheduled to officially add me, but there was an opening for a post today, so I figured, why not move in early? :D. I asked around to see if there was a particular topic readers wanted to hear about, and a request came in asking about backstory, namely, how much to add, and when it should be added in an MS. I’d recently read up on this topic to help with my own writing, and here's what I found.  

First, lets clear up what backstory is. Backstory is an incident in a character’s past, or, more specifically, something that happened before the story started. Backstoery is sometimes necessary. It can add insight into a character’s motives or give context to a later event that can’t be fully understood without background on it. Yet, in much of the research I’ve done on this, I found that a lot of writers, publishers and agents frown on backstory, especially if it’s early in the book. Why is that, you ask? On her blog, "Story Sensei," in a post on Backstory, Author Camy Tang has this to say:

“When opening a novel, your reader cares more about what's going on right now than what happened in the past. At the start of a book, the reader isn't invested enough in the character to care about what happened to them previously, but later in the story, the reader will be intrigued enough by the character to want to know. As a writer, you need to be careful when and how you bring backstory into the story.”

Most of the time backstory, particularly long descriptions of it, is not as important as you might think. It tends to be boring, it kills tension, and it slows the progression of a story down. Also, relying on backstory to create sympathy for a character or build a character early in a story is a common newbie mistake. Likewise, using it solely for the purpose of world building is a no no. Backstory should only be added if and when it answers a pressing question that has built up in the reader’s mind over time. When deciding how much and when to add in backstoy, it should always be information that the reader absolutely cannot understand the story without. Early in a story, readers should bond with a character through their current actions and dialogue.

But wait a minute, Raven, you say. But how is the reader supposed to understand why my MC is running down the street terrified if they don’t know her entire family was killed right before she runs? My answer: Why do they need to understand the whole story? Why do they need every detail? A few thoughts from the character’s mind, a few quick references can be enough to let the reader know what happened without giving every agonizing detail. Also, hinting at it without telling the reader exactly what happened creates mystery. It creates questions. Showing her fear, her hurry, blood on her clothing, or how the area she is running through makes her feel will spark questions. So rather than reading a long detailed description of what happened, or a flashback that comes way before the reader has become invested in the story enough to care, the reader is wondering, why is she afraid? What happened to her family? Why is she running through the street in the middle of the night? Woah, why is she covered in blood?! The reader isn’t plodding through pages and pages of previous events, asking, why in heck is the author telling me this now? Instead, they're holding the book with white knuckles, hardly able to breath while they sit on the edge of their seat waiting to find out why.

It’s important for writers to keep in mind, readers don’t need to “get it” right away. At least not everything. As long as you give enough to avoid confusion, it’s okay for readers to wonder why things are happening, to play catch up for the first little while. As long as you eventually answer the questions you raise, and give enough for the reader to keep going, the backstory probably isn’t needed until later.   

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writer and Literary Agent, Donald Maass helps authors bring their novel from midlist to the coveted bestseller status. As I so often have, I recommend this book to any writer, regardless of skill level, or the stage they are at in their writing career. The book details exercises that, by going through them with a completed manuscript, helps writers edit stories more effectively. Having this book is like having a personal editor at your side while you go through your MS. Only it’s free, and you can call on him anytime you like, by simply picking up the book and going to the appropriate topic. When it comes to backsory, Maass asks you to take a portion of your MS which offers backstory early in the novel, and move it to chapter 15. This works on the same principle Camy Tang’s blog does. What happened to a character previously will matter far more to the reader after they have become a part of the story and begun to care about the characters. In most books, by chapter 15, a reader will have bonded with a character enough to want to know what made them the way they are. At least they will if you’ve made effective use of the current surroundings, events, actions and dialogue.

From a personal stand point, when it comes to backstory, I find it easiest to just write the story however it comes out and then worry about whether the bakcstory you have is needed in the editing stage. It’s easiest to see how taking it out or leaving it in effects the story when the whole MS is laid out before you. This way, you see all the ways the information is tied into each event. Oftentimes, information you thought was important in the writing stage is found to be not nearly so imperative in the editing stage. Also, I find my best writing happens by accident, a twist or a surprise event that isn’t planned, and you never know when you might find a good way to quickly forgraph an event earlier in a story, in such a way that the reader is surprised when the connection is made, rather than including pages of backstory that build up to said event. Readers like to be surprised, and personally, I love those “Aha!” moments, when I read something that seems like a mundane comment or a passing incident that only later shows itself to have a profound meaning. It’s that awesome moment when several small clues offered throughout the story suddenly make sense. Something happens later in a book, and you think back to an earlier action or dialogue from a character, the connection clicks, and you go, “Aha!” Since the nature of backstory is the offering of information to the reader about events that happened before the story started, adding too much in too early ruins potential “Aha!” moments that would otherwise make the story more exciting.

When you do bring in the backstory, it’s also important not to information feed, that is, adding it in simply because the reader needs to know it. It should disappear into the landscape and become part of the action. There are three ways to add backstory:

1)      Flashbacks
2)      Discussion
3)      Narrative

Note, though, that each of these methods should be used with care. Each of them pose their own unique problems if used in an ineffectual manner.


Like any information in a story, this should be used only if and when the reader needs the information most. Using flashbacks is frowned on for new writers especially, because they are so often used to convey information the reader doesn’t need, or before they need it. They are also notoriously used in poor fashion. Flashbacks are difficult to do without having the “telling” feel that reminds readers they are reading a book, and not part of the story itself. The key to good flashbacks is to start and end with transition openers and closers that feel natural, and to use riveting words that create lots of tension, offering only the barest minimum of details. See Camy’s blog for good examples of this.


This is where backstory is added in through dialogue between characters. Again, be careful here. The information must be given in a way that isn’t too obvious, otherwise it makes readers feel like you’re spoon feeding them. Readers need to feel as if they are discovering the information as part of the story, and at a time when they are dying to get answers. Draw it out, make the answers come in pieces throughout the story, and keep the reader reading with more unanswered questions.


This is when you summarize an event rather than playing the whole thing out before the reader. This is the riskiest one to do, because narrative, by it’s nature is “telling.” Everyone knows that old meme, “Show, don’t tell.” In actuality, there are instances when it’s okay to tell, when you want to convey important info in a quick way without slowing the story down. Uses of narrative should be short, a paragraph or two at most, and again, if it’s backstory, used when they answer a most pressing question. And again, be careful not to spoon feed the reader. Incorporate the information through dialogue if you can, and make it as much a part of the action as possible. Choose words with heavy impact, and only add the most essential details.

 In short, when used the wrong way, backstory is boring, slows the story down, frustrates readers and takes them out of the story, but when used effectively, it can enhance the reading experience, make the story more riveting, and draw your reader in, ensuring they always come back for more.

Until next time everyone, write on!



  1. This is great stuff! I love that you took the time to go in depth about this subject. I sometimes wonder how much is too much or if its relevant. Great post :)

  2. Hey Raven,

    Running down the street at night. Her family's been killed. Where did I read that before? LOL!

    Great post. Lots of helpful information.

  3. Glad you found this helpful, guys. Thanks for reading.

    @Michelle4Laughs, LOL!

  4. This was so good! Lots of stuff that really helps me out. Thanks a bunch Raven :) I've always loved your guest posts. Glad to see you're one of the new blog authors!

  5. Excellent post, Raven! You never leave anything unsaid and always make sure to back up and clarify your points, which is great.

    Backstory is a thing I often struggle with as far as how to put it in and how much, but my rule is to always keep backstory to a minimum unless strictly needed (and even then in small doses). This is also where symbolism and imagery could come heavily into play, to integrate the backstory into the background as much as possible.


    - Mad

  6. I've spent my entire morning reading and thought why not start leaving comments? So expect to see me pop up a little more.

    Great information Raven. You always leave no stone unturned when it comes to your posts and my writing thanks you for it. LOL. Loved this. :)

  7. Great first post as an official author Woo! So detailed..I love it. I struggle with backstory too, especially when and how much. So this will help me as well. Thanks!

  8. Wow, guys, thanks for all the replies. Glad it helped!


  9. You're always in depth and I love it! Great post :D

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