29 October 2009

How We Can Show Backstory

Our stories have two basic parts: backstory and front story. Front story deals with the main events of the novel. Backstory is just that--what came before the present era of the plot.

The problem with backstory is that it's a lot of telling. Done well, it can be captivating. But if it isn't done well or if there's simply too much, we run the risk of losing our reader--whether that be the person who purchased it from a book store or our dream agent.

I'm always going to argue that backstory is necessary, because it gives depth and strengthens a plot in a way that front story can't. Backstory can continue themes, it can spark revelatory light as to the significance of certain events, and it can give a solid foundation for the character. The question really isn't if it's important, it's how to write it, where it should be placed in a novel, and how much should be given at one time.

Contemporary thought and form says that backstory shouldn't be included in the first few chapters of a novel. In her novel Between the Lines, Jessica Page Morrell says that "backstory, if used incorrectly, can stall a story" (Morrell 18). The opening chapter is where a reader gets a sense of voice, plot, setting, the protagonist, and point of view. Primary scenes need action. Launching into backstory before the front story is established is a mistake--and a sure way to lose the reader (page 32). Morrell states, backstory "should only be included if the events that follow cannot be understood without it" (Morrell 32).

So how do we do it? We have all this crucial information that we know is important to our stories. How do we write it well?

Sometimes a little backstory is needed up front. That's for us as writers to step back and evaluate for ourselves. But if it isn't, Morrell advises "strategically witholding information until the last minute, even as you tease readers with bits of information and minor skirmishes" (page 33). James Scott Bell uses Hemingway's "iceberg metaphor" in Plot and Structure, advising to leave 90% of the information hidden--until it is needed. By only revealing a portion of the backstory at the time, we create questions. With clever references, we can increase tension and spark curiousity, keeping the reader hooked. It can even become a foreshadowing device depending on the nature of the story.

So, I tried this out. I looked at my giant chunks of backstory, mentally removed them, and went to a new opening scene of the novel. Then I started weaving in little lines, inflections even. You know what? It created more conflict (which is a great thing for a plot!) and it created more questions. In fact, the result encouraged me so much that I'm excited to go back and weave in more intrigue. And that's a good thing because there's a lot of work ahead of me. I'm still feeling my way through, but I think I have a better idea of what the finished product will be.

What are some of your favorite "tricks" in revealing backstory?

So, wanna know something cool? Rachelle Gardner, agent extraordinaire, posted on backstory yesterday (cba-ramblings.blogspot.com). I thought this was super cool because a) I definitely needed to hear what she had to say and b)it means that I'm on the right track with my changes. Woohoo! What cool confirmation! The post above written last weekend so all my information came from the sources listed above.


  1. Great thoughts. I'm struggling with two little tiny sentences of backstory right now. They are in my first chapter, and the reader does need to know the information, but I'm thinking of moving it. But it's just two sentences! Can't they stay? :)

  2. this is a great post. Really exlains what backstory is and how to use it effectively. And that confirmation thing is pretty cool. I read your last post last night and Rachelle's this morning. Too cool. Have a great one, Sarah

  3. Great info. I am a big believer of weaving back story in a subtly as possible :)

    ps- I have left an award for you on my blog. (just give me time to post today's post :)

  4. Backstory must be on everyone's minds! What great reminders I got from Rachelle's post and yours! Thank you!

  5. Sprinkling backstory in dialogue is one way to not slow your pace. But you don't want to be too obvious about it.

  6. I like there to be a unanswered question, so I try not to show too much backstory at the beginning. However, I've read some books that don't have enough backstory and it always makes me feel like I can't relate to the character as much. This is a really good, balanced post. Thanks Kristen!

  7. I'm here from Tabitha's blog. Great information, and very timely for me as well. I'll be back.

  8. I like to present a mystery up front, a conflict for the main character. Then, I thread the backstory in, through a dream, a memory, or through the shocking revelation of the truth by, dun-dun-dun, the villian!!

    Love the new blog layout, by the way!

  9. Good post! I read Rachelle's yesterday, too, and it was very insightful. I like what she said about us tending to think that the reader NEEDS to know the backstory right away but in reality, the more we withhold and the slower we reveal it, the more the reader wants. Great job with working on your backstory, sounds like you're on your way!

  10. I love the insight you had to offer Kristen. As a reader I enjoy backstory as a mechanism for suspense and depth. As a writer I know I haven't mastered the skill of using it to my advantage.

    I needed these tips.

  11. I love backstory both as a writer and a reader, especially when it's got dialogue or given out little by little. I think it's really important to get your bearings on a character right at the beginning - enough information to understand him/her, anyway. Great post!

    I've passed an award on to you at my blog even though it looks like you've already got this one. :)

  12. Thanks for sharing this! Have been discussing this with my high school creative writing students and am going to direct them here for more insight. Blessings to you and your readers,

  13. Hey, Susan! I'm definitely no expert, but I think they could! If nothing else, I don't think their presence would hurt anything. That's easily removed if needed!

    Thanks, Sarah, Jody, Jessica, Tamika, and Jennifer! I'll definitely look into using dialogue. That's a great idea!

    Thank you, Tabitha and Julie! WOOOHOOOO!!! You just made my day! I'll go check it out!

    Thank you so much, Deb! It's nice to meet you! Thanks for coming over. I'll definitely go back and check your blog out as well!

    Hehe, it's so bright! So fun! Thanks, Jen!

    I agree, Cindy. Until recently, I didn't think of a backstory as a way to pull a reader in other than it being in one piece. Sneaking it in bit by bit has really intrigued me!

    Karen, you just gave me the biggest smile! Thank you so much for the honor!!

  14. Good topic. I try to follow Hemingway's advice. Not always easy.

  15. It's definitely not! I'm not a huge Hemingway fan, but this is great advice. I'm definitely going to try to use it.

  16. I must print this post! This is so helpful to me as I am starting practically from scratch again.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  17. You're welcome! I'm glad it was helpful!

  18. Hurray on the article!!!! ALways a joy to hear that! And yay on joing ACFW! I don't know how to get their thingy on my site though! HELP!!