Let's Talk About Backstory
Updated: Jan 12
Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash
What are your thoughts on writing backstory into a novel? You might fall into one of three categories on how you feel about this story writing technique.
Three ways you might feel about backstory
1. I'm not convinced it's important to include backstory in my novels.
2. I feel fine about backstory. I don't use too much or too little.
3. I love backstory. I write lengthy character histories and fit in details whenever the opportunity arises.
Maybe there's a fourth category because I'm obsessed with backstory.
4. I know it's important and I want to use it well, so I study stories to figure out how successful writers use it and apply these ideas into my writing.
This obsession probably happened because I kept hearing from editors and agents I shouldn't dump backstory at the beginning of my stories. Even the tiniest mention of a character's past seemed to set off the sirens for my professional readers. But when I looked for resources on how to write backstory well, I couldn't find any! Ugh!
Don't tell me not to use backstory at the beginning of my novel if you're not going to show me how to do it correctly.
So I figured it out for myself. I studied books, movies and television shows. The results were exciting.
There are ways to use backstory so stories are deeper, more engaging, and more emotional.
I want to share everything I've been learning with you, but let's start at the beginning.
What is backstory?
Backstory is anything that happened to a character before the "real story" begins. While the following sentences seem to take place in the present, they include backstory and might get flagged from a professional reader. Consider the following...
1. I smile at Owen and take the drooping, yellow flowers. He does stuff like this all the time. Like when I broke my leg, and he brought me milkshakes every day until the doctor sawed off my cast and set my pasty leg free.
2. I used to dream I'd one day stand on a stage and sing in front of people. Now the chickens are lucky if I hum a tune while I dump dusty corn into their feeding trays.
Do these sentences help you get to know characters? Yes, I think so. However, they include backstory, so avoid these kinds of sentences at the beginning of a story.
Why avoid backstory at the beginning?
Even when backstory is interesting and helps you get to know characters, there are reasons not to put it at the start of your story.
Reasons you might not want to include backstory at the start of your novel.
1. It could send a message you don't care about the current industry standards.
I know not everybody is as obsessed with pleasing others as I am, but this is a rule to respect because it's founded in truth. So keep reading numbers two and three.
2. It forces the reader to switch gears as they're just getting to know new characters and an unfamiliar setting.
3. It gives away information quickly and doesn't take advantage of reader curiosity.
Now I've defined backstory and strongly suggested you shouldn't start your story with backstory.
So, what should you do with backstory?
I will share my first conclusion with you in this post! Here it is...
Use clues to hint at backstory.
This will help readers get to know characters and it might make them turn pages to find out more.
I'm not suggesting you don't flesh out character details or act like the past doesn't affect your characters. I'm suggesting you dig in deep and really make your reader wonder what happened to these characters so they will want to keep reading.
Consider the following sentences that hint at backstory but don't give everything away upfront.
Examples of sentences that hint at a character's backstory...
1. Zeb turned away from the building and stepped into the street. He avoided the thick lines fading into the concrete. The thirty story building cast a frigid shadow over the crosswalk and he had no desire to set one toe in its presence.
You may wonder what happened at the building to make him avoid it. Would you keep reading to find out?
2. I spooned the whipped cream off the top of my sundae and watched it drizzle into the stinking trash can. I glanced up and caught a look from a lady whose dull eyes focused on me, the corner of her mouth twitched sideways to display her clear disappointment. Just like her, always watching.
Are you curious who this character is talking about? Who used to watch her? Why did they watch?
3. The chickens are everything now. Their rhythmic clucking. The way they seem to dance even when they run. Sometimes I sit out here and sing to see how they react to my new voice.
Would you like to find out what happened to this girl's old voice? Was she a great singer? Did she get into an accident? Is there any hope she will sing in front of people again?
I hope this analysis and tip will help you in your writing. Check back next month when I'll provide another tip on how to use backstory in your novel. Let me know if today's tip helped.
Blessings to you, dear writer friend. May your ideas flow freely, and may you have few interruptions.