How We Write Wednesdays: Love Your Backstory, Make it Shine

How We Write’s focus turns to backstory this Wednesday. Jenn and I have talked planning and plotting and revising and characters and story structure. But what about working what happens BEFORE, into your story’s now? That can sometimes be as much work as all the rest–combined.


You may have noticed my blog’s slowed down the last few weeks. Why? I’m heads down into the most complicated proposal I’ve written yet (and that’s saying something considering I just finished Sara and Maddie Temple’s story), and I’m trying to sort through everything I’ve been researching and planning for the next three books in the Legacy series and start the story, set the story, yet propel the characters through the first three chapters of the story without dampening the kick-ass pacing of the psychic thriller/magical realism my readers have come to crave.

I teach “free writing” to my students. To write to the end before you go back and revise. But I always qualify that I first get through the proposal stage. The initial 50 – 75 pages. The three chapters my agent needs (along with the BEST synopsis of the full story or series I can write) to sell my books to my publishers. Those first three chapters are an art form, a story, all to themselves. They need to establish your story not just for a reader, but for the editor you want to buy your manuscript.

You’ve heard me say it before–how you handle the inciting incident has plot and character ripples that flow through the middle and most importantly the dark moment and climax of your story. But it’s not just that. Weaving in the backstory of your story, intriguing the reader without revealing too much, all while you’re being sure to tell them enough at the exact moments they need to know… The finesse and delicacy in which you do this is part of your voice. And it has to change in subtle ways with each story. You can never be too careful or creative about how you handle it. You can’t just dump in the “goodies,” then get back to the creative work of telling your story. Some of the most creative writing you do comes when you craft the past into your on-the-page world.

Theres’ no quick and easy way to describe how to handle the “no dumpage” mandate for backstory, or how to work around the “show don’t tell” rule we’ve all had beaten into us. What a surprise!

type keys

There are no simple rules for backstory, any more than there are for anything else. If you don’t give enough in the right places, you frustrate and lose your reader. If you throw to much at the story when it’s not needed in ways that don’t fit your characters and world, your pacing crawls to a painful halt.

I asked the dedicated writers following the #weWRITE Twitter hashtag their backstory questions and suggestions and received an array of wisdom in response. Which is both encouraging and expected.

  • Some write all the backstory in, then rewrite it out.
  • Some write the story without backstory and plug it in later.
  • Some just write and plan very little and let the past reveal itself as they actually write the story’s present.
  • EVERYONE is aware of how difficult a topic it is to tackle, but, of course finding their own way.

My take? You have to be skilled at working with your story’s origins, whatever your personal writing process is. And I think the reader’s tolerance and expectation for how to handle backstory very much depends on the genre you’re writing. Let me say that again–you have to skillfully offer the reader and the story the depth of backstory that’s expected. It’s not just your call, not if you’re writing any type of genre fiction.

Which means we’re circling back to another common piece of advice I give the writers I teach. Read. Read a lot. Read everything, study it all, then focus on the type of writer and writing you want to publish in. Deconstruct what others are doing and incorporate what’s best about it into your own work. What does that mean for backstory?

I’ve done some heavy reading the last few months as I worked my way into this story, across genres, and this is what I’ve observed as I work on my new proposal:

Karin Slaughter’s police thrillers open in a victim or “bad guy” point of view, completely entrenched in the story’s “now.” But from typically the very next scene onward, she feeds the reader a steady stream of backstory from the beginning until roughly the last third of the books (where she’s pulling out all the stops and the answers to the mysteries are falling like dominoes). Her technique–revealing character by sharing with the reader vignettes from the characters’ past. Characters remember important things about themselves and others by remembering key events that have happened before the book began that paint a three dimensional person onto the page, either parallelling something happening “now,” or challenging it. Also, she tells backstory from an emotional standpoint–how or why a person is who they are. It’s all about character for her, and believe me when I say there’s a LOT of backstory in almost every scene. But it works better than just about anything else I’ve read.

Sarah Addison Allen’s “sweet” magical realism opens on stage as well, where she’s showing us the central character in her world where magic is just accepted and things are strange, but not so strange it’s impossible for the reader to buy that everyone’s accepting the fantastical things going on from the get go. Then, like Slaughter, she begins to hit you with the how and why of these characters and happenings as she weaves you through the book’s set up. I’d say the first third of her novels are heavy set up. But by heavy, I don’t mean to the degree that Slaughter “tells.” A sentence here or there is all Addison takes, because it’s all she has to. She’s not weaving as intricate an external story as Slaughter. Her challenge for the reader is to understand the flickers of backstory she hints at here and there, so the internal journey of her characters rings true. She focuses on feelings and how they’re tied to the external world and the past. She sets up the environment a lot as well, when she’s telling you what’s happened before the book opens. Hers is a more literary device, and everything she reveals has a pay off at the end of the story, just like in Slaughter’s procedurals. Only her pay off is the explanation of how the magic and the reality of what she’s created works together.

In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and American Gods (modern classics if I’ve ever read one), his fantastical worldbuilding (and heavy backstory) demands external information from the very start. He’s taking you beyond your geographical borders and showing you contemporary characters that seem mythological. He’s creating something that feels very real but very surreal at the same time. And the only way he can do that is to explain what and why things are happening around, again, the most intriguing, amazing characters you are dying to know everything about. So you don’t mind the backstory. It doesn’t affect the pacing, because you’re turning the pages as fast as you can to learn more. I’m sensing a common thread here. Emotion.Character. Yes, Gaiman’s telling more than showing at times, like all the rest, but it’s very skillfully done. And it’s always about showing you a character you can’t look away from.

David Weber’s “Honor” sci-fi series is amazing alternative world building. We’re on spaceships and there are alien species and we’re on other planets and on missions that all begin and end with his imagination. He has to paint everything for us. He can’t NOT tell. Showing wouldn’t make sense without the heavy work he does planting backstory from the first page–because without his mind as a guide, we’d have no frame of reference from which to see things in our own. But again, he does it all in character. Shows us how everything we’re being told and shown affects Honor Harrington. And as with all the above authors, the writer’s wit bleeds into the characters lives and we’re learning about them and their surroundings in ways so interesting and “real,” it’s like we’re in their head and having an amazing time with them while we’re discovering who they are.

That’s just a sample of what I’ve been studying, but it gives you an idea of how important backstory is (in my opinion) to the amazing work of some of our most talented and successful modern authors.You have to love backstory, not dump it into corners and write away from it as quickly as you can. You have to tell the reader what’s going on whenever they need to know. And, here’s the kicker, they want to know. But you have to do it in a way that they don’t notice how you’re laying the tracks of the past into the present story. You have to build the central characters and themes and settings so masterfully from the past, that the reader’s craving more. You can’t let your technique pull the reader out of “now” or slow the momentum of the “A” story.

In short, you have to handle backstory masterfully. And that’s some of the hardest work you’ll do as you draft and revise your manuscript.

How do you handle your backstory?

Do you love it enough to craft it into your characters’ worlds so skillfully, you’re reader will be begging you for more?

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6 Responses to “How We Write Wednesdays: Love Your Backstory, Make it Shine”

  1. Anna, thanks for sharing this detailed analysis of how backstory is revealed! This is fantastic. Backstory can be tricky–kinda like salt, it’s easy to have too much or too little.

  2. Ah, back story. It’s a bane to all novelists.

    I had a recent run-in with an agent over back story. I submitted a query letter along with the first 20 pages of a manuscript and she replied that she liked the concept of my novel, my style of writing, and found my prologue gripping—a young woman at the turn of the previous century enjoying a tryst with her lover shoots and kills her husband, who is supposed to be away on business, when she hears who she takes to be an intruder outside her bedroom window. Turns out the husband suspected her duplicity and doubled back to catch her in the act.

    However, my use of back story in the opening chapter didn’t engage this particular agent.

    How did I use it? Chapter 1 opens with my protagonist in a therapy session discussing his impending divorce, the result of his infidelity and a midlife crisis. He suggests to his therapist that his life would be easier if he were a cartoon character and goes on to express how the cartoons of his youth, Wile E. Coyote and Yosemite Sam, never achieved their ambitions—Wile never got the roadrunner and Sam never bagged Bugs—but they always came back for more, and that he envies them their perseverance.

    In short, my writers group thought it was very well done, humorous while melancholic, and I was told it was a clever introduction to the protagonist and his “issues.”

    But agents and publishers are behind the doors I must knock down—they hold the contracts and the purses to publication, and prove just how subjective this business really is.

    It’s funny how much the art of writing has evolved over the centuries. I recently read a novel by Victor Hugo and found the first 100 pages were pretty much all back story, with virtually no dialogue; it was somewhat onerous, but worthwhile. But Hugo didn’t have to compete with TV and the Internet and America’s voracious appetite for immediate gratification. If Hugo had adhered to Elmore Leonard’s credo to cut any text he envisions the reader skipping over, Hugo’s The Laughing Man would’ve been a piece of flash fiction.

    Then again, if the publishing industry continues to lose money, well, apparently they don’t have the “formula” for a best seller, do they? I’ve read that the novel is dying. If it’s not, then the publishing industry seems to be doing its best to kill it off.

    Thanks, Anna, for blogging about a topic that is often overlooked. Back story is a tool that every good writer should have in his or her toolbox, even if, when skillfully employed, it earns him or her a rejection letter or two!

  3. PW Creighton says:

    I love utilizing the backstory. It is the foundation for pretty much everything and adds that depth to the psychology of the characters. I prefer to orchestrate and write out the entire backstory then remove it from the story. I take a sentence here or another there from what I wrote and then add them to the current piece when they are relevant to add context. Horrific moments and tragedies in their past I bring in as visions, nightmares and sporadic flashes. As anyone in their right mind will be traumatized by such events it should affect them and they should remember.

  4. Amanda Rudd says:

    I love the way you’ve analyzed the styles various writers have used to convey backstory. It’s clear and useful for those of us still trying to find the best way for our own purposes. Thanks!

  5. JOYE says:

    Very interesting article. Would be fun to take a writing class from you.

  6. sem calcinha says:

    Adoro me mostrar peladinha na web cam

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