Backstory Basics

One key to writing a book that connects with readers is including characters they care about.

Or hate. It can be characters they hate. Just as long as the readers want to follow from the first page to the last.

Follow-worthy characters come from awesome descriptions, dialogue, goals you want to see them achieve, odds to beat, or devastating actions to their consequences. Another layer to add to your characters is the one that makes them; their backstory.

Backstory Basics

Don’t Info Dump

While you should avoid info dumping any part of your book, info dumping the backstory rates even higher. Why? Because it slows things down. This is especially true in the first three chapters of your book.

The beginning of the book is when you should hook the reader, not bore them with how the MC grew up in a small town, got high grades throughout school, moved to the city, found an apartment, then ended up the pawn in a serial killer’s game. Start, and stay, with the game! At least for the first few chapters.

The MC’s history is better sprinkled throughout the book, not dumped in the first chapter where it‘ll be forgotten by the time you need to know why it’s important she’s smart and grew up in a small town for the nail-biting climax.

Plan Or Perfect It

If you’re an organized writer who works out your plot and writes character outlines before getting stuck into a draft, crafting your backstory should be a cinch. Knowing where the story starts and ends and having in-depth profiles of each character is sure to help. Make the most of your organized-self and plan your backstory as part of your outline too.

If you don’t plan (waves to fellow pantsers), you won’t know the backstory until after you‘ve written the first draft. You can then perfect it on the next few (hundred) drafts, or reverse outline it and blend it in as if it was always part of your evil plan story.

Show The Effects First

Before revealing any backstory, get into the habit of showing the effects of your backstory. A character who fears the dark, feels claustrophobic in crowds, can’t sleep without the white noise of a TV, and carries a jumper with them in summer will read as someone with quirks. But when their backstory of being caught in a snowstorm, buried for days in their car in the silent, dark, cold is revealed, all of those quirks make perfect sense. Backstory forms your characters. Use it to your advantage.

Relevantly Right 

If you want backstory to earn its place, always make sure it’s relevant to your character’s actions. Don’t open the story with the MC swimming in the ocean if the backstory in chapter eight reveals watching Jaws as a child messed them up and they don’t like the beach (totally a legit reason, yeah? I’m asking for a friend…)

Also, just as anything that doesn’t contribute to the plot or characters should be cut, backstory should be relevant to either the plot—explaining events or needed for events to happen—or character—why they are the way they are, and/or their motivations.

Trigger It

While you could give your characters a backstory so devastating they can’t think of anything but their past, it’s more common (and realistic) that your backstory will be something that doesn’t occupy their thoughts every waking second. Instead, there will be things that trigger it. A smell could remind a parent of the cookies they baked with their kids every Sunday. The sight of a racing ambulance with blaring sirens could remind a driver of a car accident years before. Trigger the backstory using the five senses for a natural read.

Do Or Don’t Devastate

While devastating backstories up the tension, you can instill an interesting backstory without horror or loss. Think quirky mystery or good fortune leading the characters to where they are.

Flashy Flashbacks

Some writers/readers love flashbacks, some loathe them. I’m a fan if they’re done right. This usually involves keeping it short, kicked off by a relevant trigger (avoid unnatural segue ways into a flashback), and because it shows something, such as motivation or answers to a question. The flashback needs to exist for a reason that drives the plot forward, not because you had a setting or description you wanted to use in your book.

If you’re not a fan of flashbacks or devoting paragraphs to the backstory, it’s also perfectly fine to work it into passing narrative instead. A past revealed in a line of dialogue or a one-sentence reference in a paragraph is sometimes all you need.

Play With The Delivery

While flashbacks or triggered memories are enough to venture into backstory territory, there are other ways too. Letters, texts, emails, voicemails, recordings suddenly unearthed, or diaries found in dusty boxes. Get creative with it and play with the way you deliver your backstory.

Balance It Out

Unless your backstory is a device you’re using, i.e. swapping between present day and the past every other chapter, keep the backstory to a minimum and balance it out. Don’t feature it in all chapters/scenes. After all, you’ve started the story where you have for a reason (right?).

Let the characters live in the present (or whatever timeline you’ve set) and venture into their past for the reasons listed above. That should leave you with fleshed out characters, clear motivations, hints of mysteries that resolve in a satisfying or devastating way (depending on the backstory), and a connection for the reader to grasp. All of which are the basics of a good backstory, and should make your book anything but basic.

— K.M. Allan

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43 thoughts on “Backstory Basics

  1. Like you mentioned at the end: The key is to balance it out. Another thing that you mentioned that is key is to make sure it’s relevant. Every now and then I’ll read a book that misses the mark in this category.

    One of my favorites is dialog. A sentence or paragraph to tease the reader a bit into their past.As long as it’s not to long it can add key elements to the beginning of the story.

    This is a great reminder. Appreciate the useful tips. Really helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bryan! Yes my fave place to include backstory is in dialogue too. It keeps me from adding endless paragraphs that slow everything down (not that I haven’t written any of those, especially in the first draft 😅).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I knew I’d need this post, and I wasn’t wrong! My WIP heavily relies on the mysteries of the backstory, and will (hopefully) have readers desperate to know what happened. But pacing that so that the reveal has tension, without, as you said, slowing the pace of the story, is going to be a challenge.
    I can confirm you’ve mastered this wonderfully in your writing!
    Thanks for another brilliant post, by bookmarks bar is becoming a K.M. Allan blog archive!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ruth Miranda

    I’m a huge lover of info dumps when it comes to backstory, so it’s what I do in my books eheh. I know it’s a terrible faux pas, but hey, I just love a good sized chunk of detailed back story – Anne Rice, anyone?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve once read a book that had a good story but the cuts into backstory were far too frequent and not enough connected to the main story. It was extremely distracting. On the good side, it warned me about doing that mistake myself. There was a flashback in my WIP I reduced to just a few mentions (because the detail was not needed at all).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read books like that too, Tomas. Totally agree that it’s distracting and annoying to read backstory if it’s not going to enhance or add anything to the main story. Glad to hear it helped you realise what not to do in your own writing.

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  5. Great post. The first draft of my current book didn’t have much character backstory. The protag and antag felt flat because of it. Now I’m writing in short chapters that give glimpses into the pasts that shaped them. One thing I’m finding a challenge is the proper timing and rhythm to place these flashbacks and scenes, but for sure I’m showing them AFTER the characters take action, so they are explanation rather than ham-fisted foreshadowing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you’re putting the backstory in the right place 😊. I’m on draft 20 of one of my current WIPs and thought I’d put in all the backstory drafts ago. Earlier this week I was working through a scene I’d already been through numerous times and a new sentence of backstory suddenly made its way in. I’m sure you’ll find the right places to put your backstory, even if you think there’s no good place to add it because a scene is “done” as far as your concerned. If the backstory needs to be there, eventually you’ll find the perfect place to put it (and hopefully not 20 drafts in like me 😅).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Can I tell you how much better this comment made me feel? I’m on my 2nd draft, and it’s a heavy re-write so it is a slog. Hearing “draft 20” makes me realize I’m not alone. Sorry for any schadenfreude, but we’ll both get there eventually. Novels take so much more time than people on the internet claim they do….

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Tell me about it. I thought I finished this draft two years ago. I even started sending it out (getting nothing but rejections). I even thought at the start of this year that I’d finally start writing a brand new story. Nope, my WIP still needed more work. It definitely takes more time than you first think. I’m sure we’ll get there too 😊.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Absolutely brilliant post. You always give great advice.
    I’m a panster, so I’m learning the backstory as I go. It’s exciting discovering my characters as I write, but also makes me dread the revision phase. I’ve got so much to straighten out, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rainy! I’m a pantser too and find I’m always adding in new backstory and then having to make sure it hasn’t messed up anything I’d written in other drafts 😅. I can’t write any other way though, and like you said, discovery the backstory is exciting.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Viola Bleu

    Such a fabulous post … and so timely. I’m a pantser through and through although I kid myself occasionally by sticking some post it notes to the wall, standing back to declare – hands on hips – that I have morphed into a mighty fine plotter.
    Then I type.
    Then they fall off the wall.
    Then I type a scene which wasn’t on a post it.
    Then I realise I’ve not looked at the post its for days and conclude I am pantser once more!!! 😂

    I have to reblog this; it’s too good not to share 🌸

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Viola 😊. Totally with you on the pantser journey. I might note down an idea or a sentence to get me started, but after that, it’s all writing and never looking at that note again 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful post! I am a linear thinker and hate flashbacks, so it’s going to be difficult to follow your advice. Just when I think I have a handle on things, I find out there’s something else I’m doing wrong…sigh. However, thanks to you, I have a roadmap to follow instead of stumbling in the dark. You need to collect all this great advice in one place as a guide for aspiring writers. Thank you for taking time out of your writing schedule to help people like me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such kind words, Alexander 😊. Please just take this as advice that may help you, not as if you’re doing something wrong by not following it. I’m sure there’s writers out there that wouldn’t agree with any of this. I’m just writing about the things I find helpful as I work on my own writing, and I’m always happy to hear that others find it just as useful too.

      Liked by 1 person

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  10. Reblogged this on Suburban Syntax and commented:
    Here’s another great tip from over on K.M. Allan’s blog. It’s on the importance of giving your character’s backstory. This is one I can relate to since I’m in the process of fleshing out backstories for my MC and Antagonist on this re-write of my current novel.

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  11. Great article, excellent points.

    I am reading so many new books that just info dump at the beginning, often in 2 or more chapters. It’s becoming a habit that needs to be broken.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ari. Totally agree. If you can avoid info dumping in the first two chapters, do it. It amazes me how many traditionally published books you see do this, yet an agent will reject you for doing the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. A lot of the time you get characters where it seems like their ‘backstory’ is their only important story and everything of importance happens before the actual novel. If your backstory is more interesting than your main plot you’re probably telling the wrong bit of story I think. I like the ‘show the effects’ advice, I’m going to look for how to do that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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