A Post For New Writers: The Proper Use of Backstory

A Post For New Writers

A Post For New Writers

In my opinion, backstory is one of the hardest things to figure out when you’re starting out.  There’s a temptation to mention everything to the reader right away.  Part of this stems from figuring out who the characters are as we are writing.  I’m not the kind of person who outlines a story when I start it.  I’ve tried and failed.  Writers who do outlines first probably have an easier time learning the delicate balance of when and how to use backstory.  (I’m guessing they do since they take time to figure out the backstory before they begin writing.)

But for the sake of this post, I will have to assume those reading this are like me in that they learn about the characters as they go along.

So, what is backstory?  

Backstory is revealing the past of your character.   The past is everything that happened before the story officially begins.

I hadn’t heard the term “backstory” until I’d already published six romances.   Basically, it’s where you’re trying to tell the reader all this stuff that makes up who the character is today.  (For example, you’re telling the reader why the hero bitter.  Usually, there’s some traumatic event in his life that made him who he is today.  Or maybe you want to explain why the heroine is afraid of candles, and you really want to explain this right away because candles are a big part of the story.)

Backstory works best 1/3 -3/4 of the way into the book.

The prologue or chapter 1 is not a good time to dump all this information on your reader.  Why?  Because the reader doesn’t care about the character yet.  So this is going to be boring to them, and chances are, they’ll skip it.  Wait until later in the story when the hero or heroine is at a crucial part in the story where the tragic event in their past is going to possibly hinder them from reaching their goal.

For example, let’s say the hero is bitter.  When he has a chance to mend a situation with his dad, he refuses.  We’re 1/3 or 1/2 into the story, so now that reader is going to care about why he refused to talk to his dad.  Now, you can show the time when his dad walked out on him and his mom.

Another example, let’s say the heroine is afraid of candles.  About 1/3 or 1/2 into the book, she needs to go into a house during a storm and all the power is out.  But she needs to use candles.  Now, you can show why she’s afraid of candles.  Let’s say she almost burned to death in a fire started by a candle.  So show that backstory then show how she is going to overcome that while she’s in this house.

Don’t bog the reader down with backstory at the beginning of the book

Backstory in the very beginning of a book is a very common and easy mistake to make.  I did it when I started writing, too.  Hey, we’re all human.  It’s okay to goof up.  The important thing is to learn from the past and do better next time.  So don’t worry if you’ve already done this in a previously published book.  Just move on and do better in your next one.  You learn best by writing more stories, not going over and over your old ones.

So what do you want to do instead of backstory as you’re writing your first couple chapters?

Focus on the character.

Whichever character you introduce, you need to establish an emotional connection between that character and the person reading the book.  This is not done with giving their past, even if they did suffer some traumatic event.  The connection needs to be something that is happening to this character at this very moment in the story.

The character is central to the story because you’re going to tell some of the story from this character’s point of view.

So when you start the story, put the reader in the moment.  

What is happening to the character.  What is the character thinking and feeling?  What is the character saying?  What is the character seeing and hearing?  Are there any other things important to the scene that the character is experiencing?

Here’s an example from the idea I had about the father going to pick up his daughter:

Pete Grant wiped the fog from the windshield and jerked when he saw the curb coming up straight ahead.  Tapping the brake, he turned the wheel and cursed himself for being so careless.  The car slowed to a more manageable speed and he released his breath.

The rain was relentless tonight.  The wipers did little to compensate for the downpour.  He hated summers in Florida.  Sudden bursts of rain and humidity.  Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he cranked up the air conditioner.

“You should take the job,” his estranged wife had said.  “Florida’s a paradise.”

“Some paradise,” he muttered as he took a more cautious turn down the next bend on the lonely, dark road.  “It’s been nothing but problems.”

And now he had one more problem.  He was late–yet again–in picking his daughter up.  But this time, it wasn’t his fault the meeting ran late.  But would his wife believe it?  Probably not.

“I can’t do anything right.” He shook his head.  “Forget about it.”

Right now, he had to focus on making it through this storm without crashing his car.  He also needed to watch for the addresses as he passed the occasional house.

In that scene, I did hint at a couple backstories.  The character has a past, but I didn’t go into it.  I only skimmed the surface.  The point of hinting at backstories are to intrigue the reader and to make them wonder what is going on.  In this case, the father is late.  But why did the meeting run late?  I noted he had an “estranged” wife.  What is the marital conflict?  And did the move to Florida have something to do with it?

Also, I established the character’s thoughts and emotions at that very moment in the scene.  He’s anxious.  He’s in a hurry but struggling to drive safely.  He’s unhappy about the state of marriage.  He has a sense of doom that his wife will blame him even though him being late is not his fault.  There are a couple things going on, which the reader will hopefully connect with and sympathize with when they read the first chapter.

The beginning of the book not only sets the stage for it, but it also builds a relationship between the main character and the reader.


In the next post, I’ll discuss point of view, which can be another hard thing to work with when you’re starting out.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to other genres, but her first love is historical romance. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and a couple of children. To find out more about her books, go to https://ruthannnordinsbooks.wordpress.com/.
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24 Responses to A Post For New Writers: The Proper Use of Backstory

  1. For the thesis I’m writing, I only came up with the backstory of my protagonist while doing the outline. I hadn’t actually given much thought to her past, but when I did, I gave her some sort of tragic reason to explain her choice of career. What it ended up doing was making her easier to relate to, and a little less perfect than my original conception of her. Which was a good thing, because too perfect for me means a character would probably get boring quick.

  2. This post made me think of a good friend of mine. She’s so funny because when she tells a story, usually a funny one, she has to tell the whole backstory first. Like yesterday, she was telling a funny story about something her son said while he was trying on jeans. She had to let me know that she went to K-Mart, he really needed jeans, she bought them a little big so he could grow into them, they were on sale, etc. I didn’t really need to know any of that. So when it comes to backstory, you also have to decide what elements of it is important and what you can leave out. There are some things that you need to know as an author to develop the character, but the reader doesn’t need to know. Then there are some things they need to know to understand the character. It’s a fine line.

    • Backstory can definitely be used, but I don’t like the technique some authors use when doing it right at the beginning of the story because it slows it down. I’m an impatient reader. If I don’t see a point to the scene, I skim it. This is why I’m also a big proponent of no sagging middles or word count for the sake of a longer story. 🙂

      Last night I was listening to Catching Kent and caught some stuff I did that made me cringe (because the story probably should have been shorter than it was), and I published it last year. But it’s like I keep saying, keep moving forward and do better next time. LOL

    • By the way, I kind of have a friend like that, too. She doesn’t go into that much detail, but she usually does ramble a bit about the unessential items before getting to the main topic. (I’ve also caught myself doing it, too, and I’ll cut myself short and get to the point.) It’s too easy to ramble. 🙂

      • We women are detail oriented, so it comes naturally, I think. I also think that’s why men tune us out sometimes, because most men don’t care about the details. My friend, though, gives way too much information. I’ll never forget the time I had to pay for her lunch because she had forgotten her money, and, of course, she was going to pay me back. When the waiter asked “together or separate” about the checks, I told him to put them together. She said to the waiter, “I’m going to pay her back.” I thought I would die laughing. Why did the waiter have to know that? LOL

        • LOL I guess she didn’t want to seem like a freeloader. 🙂

          I agree about women being detail oriented. We also usually talk a lot more than men, so it makes sense. Yep on men tuning us out. This morning, my husband asked, “When did we get new bowls?” I had mentioned buying new bowls twice during mealtimes because the kids asked about them, and he just now noticed them. 😀

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