The Only Rule About Backstory That Matters

The Only Rule About Backstory That Matters

This week’s video learn how to write backstory that matters to your story and entrances readers with its possibilities.

Video Transcript:

I get a lot of questions about backstory:

How much should you include?

Where should you put in your book?

When should you put it?

And these are all really good questions. Backstory is a crucial part of any book because it’s what creates a broader view of your story, a deeper context. In many respects, backstory is what will bring your characters to life and convince readers they’re living, breathing people who have a dimensional existence even outside of the story itself. So never discount backstory.

But perhaps because of its very importance, backstory can be tricky to handle. Writers often end up throwing the entirety of their backstory at their readers at the wrong moment. So how do you know the right moment?

I’m going to go out on a limb—but not very far—and say that the only rule about backstory that truly matters to the success of your story is finding that right moment. Fortunately, there’s a secret hack to make this all much simpler.

And that is this: Never share your character’s backstory until the last possible moment, right before whenever readers will be hopelessly confused without knowing the backstory. Hint all you like, but don’t actually share the facts of that delicious backstory until you have to.

Joon-ho Bong’s post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer is a good example of this, and it gives a little extra boost of depth and subtext to an otherwise relatively simple and plot-heavy story. Right away, we learn the main character has a backstory—and that it’s an interesting backstory, because he’s obviously haunted by it. But does Bong tell us right away what this backstory is? Nope. Does he tell us in the First Act? Nope. Second Act? Nuh-huh. He doesn’t tell us until more than three-quarters of the way through the story, just before the Climax.

That’s a lot of waiting, but it works beautifully because it never burdens readers with information they don’t care about. Hook your readers in with a hint to make them care, and hold off on your big reveal until the last possible moment.

Tell me your opinion: When do readers learn about the important facts of your protagonist’s backstory?

The Only Rule About Backstory That Matters

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I plan to illustrate backstory at the very beginning – when Mark complains to his Mother through Skype – that he has always been felt let down since she married to that Spaniard torreador.
    Mother is upset and protects her Husband, a reliable businessman.
    Skype contact breaks.
    Mark dashes off screen.

    Part of the backstory is that Mother left Father at Mark’s salad days for that Spaniard. Important because this gives me chance to illustrate Mark’s longing to a female sort of understanding what is a crucial and motivating force for Helga to break connection with Victor, her husband.

    Hard to interrelate backstories for enlivening seemingly accidental connections – especially if 8 characters are on stage, and expected to have functions and move forward the plot.
    On top of that backstories should be thematicly related – f.e.: – to be unable to forgive

    This Skype incident is also supposed to illustrate that theme.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You raise a good point about the importance of relating backstory to theme. Ultimately, every important story element has to tie back into that overall “message.” If the backstory doesn’t contribute to theme, then that’s a good sign it’s extraneous.

  2. Love this! I love stories with lots of secrets from the past. But past events that aren’t interesting and don’t affect the current plot can be a chore to slog through.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Backstory is always one of my favorite things to write in any story. But you’re totally right: it only works if the backstory is actually interesting.

  3. thomas h cullen says:

    This is perhaps the most tricky and difficult of facets to creating a story. The answer in large part hinges on the relationship between story and storyteller; how much does the latter care about the former? Do they care so much, they’ll ignore your advice and try to “be so clever” about where to place backstory in?

    On the flip side, they may still care so much, but this time in the context that they just feel sincere about where they place backstory – regardless of its effect on the interaction between the story and the reader.

    Me? I fall solely into the latter category. I’ll care so much, I may end up not bothering with backstory whatsoever (just like so much else, as the case is with that most unique of fictions: The Representative).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love backstory. It’s what gives us the wealth of subtext – the 9/10ths of the iceberg under the water – but when the whole point is that most of the berg remain *under* the water, then sometimes it *is* best to leave the backstory largely, or even entirely, unspoken.

  4. I’m now wondering if I got it wrong in my last book. I put my protagonist’s back story in the opening paragraphs because I wanted the reader to see how well things were going in the town he moved from in contrast to the hell he was about to face in the town he is moving to. However, I do include other tidbits of back story in other parts.
    On another thought, in my first book, the only person I give a decent back story is not one of the main characters but the brother of one. Readers have declared that character to have been the most interesting one in the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Right” and “wrong” are heavy terms for novel writing. Ultimately, if it works, it works. Backstory in the opening is tricky because its lack of immediacy often doesn’t provide the best hook. But as long as you’re pulling readers in, that’s what matters, first and foremost.

  5. My main character is introduced at the beginning of Chapter 1 when he’s two years old, and it’s explained to him that his mother died in childbirth (factual information).

    A large part of his motivation for the first half of the story — until he reaches adulthood — will be his search for his mother’s backstory.

    Does that count?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’ve laid down the hook that will pique reader curiosity for the discovery of the entirety of the mother’s backstory.

  6. robert easterbrook says:

    I’m guilty of trying to be clever and sincere about when and where to place backstory. So sue me. ;p

    In my latest story I start with an event the main character ‘remembers’ occurring on the night before her ninth birthday. She’s dreaming it. I wonder if this is too much backstory, initially?

    I also ask this because I recently asked you, K.M., about outrageous beginnings. 🙂

  7. I think it depends on the story. I put mine in the second chapter. I wanted it early on because almost all of the decisions my protagonist makes hinges on her backstory. It wouldn’t make any sense at all without it. However, I didn’t want to hand a bunch of exposition over like a plate of veggies. Instead, I snuck it in to a part that was not about her story, but rather about her relationship with someone else.
    I love the suspense of bringing the backstory in at the last possible moment, though. Great article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you needed it early for the story to make sense, then you put it in exactly the right place. Not every story will support a backstory reveal as late as Snowpiercer‘s.

  8. KM Brandon Sanderson did a good job with the backstory for Vin in Mistborn: Hero of Ages. Holding out until the last possible second to tell us about the importance of the small object she’s been wearing since book 1. He hinted before (while she was with the Lord Ruler, the obligator king and in the mists) but he didn’t tell us until Spook’s message, and he still waited until Marsh read it to do that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good example! And he teased it beautifully throughout the series so readers wouldn’t forget about it, insignificant as it seemed.

  9. I write horror and mystery novels. My first novel was #1 in it’s respected category. I understand backstory sometimes has different characteristics in movies than in television and novels, but as a professional writer I am still conflicted by which is more effective. For example, “American Horror Story” has so much backstory and it seems it’s all executed in flashbacks. Now, normally I feel flashbacks weaken the plot and slow the story progression down (after all, aren’t characters supposed to move forward, rather than backward?) but it still feels engaging. However, I read Joe Hill’s “Horns” and was overwhelmed with flashbacks and backstory that I wanted to put it down! I still regret finishing it. “Horns” opens with the protagonist (Ig Parrish) growing horns that give him Hellish abilities, but in chapter 2 the story flashes back to the events building to how Ig gets his horns. I felt myself, in my head, screaming, “Oh my God, this is so boring! Get back to the action, get back to the horns, now that you have them, what are you going to do?!” But only a few pages explain what he did with them. So what is the most effective way of explaining backstory? Do you explain via dialogue or is it okay to use flashbacks?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Flashbacks are trickier than not. When in doubt: don’t use them. But they definitely *can* be super effective in the right context. I just finished Michael Chabon’s Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which devotes the second eighth of the book to a long flashback that works beautiful because of how skillfully the hook was set and how interesting the backstory was in its own right.

  10. Backstory is probably one of those story elements that make or break a story “artistically” speaking. Because, handled badly, it ruins the reading experience. Handled well, it’s part of what makes a good story a work of art. Here`s an instance where we need to experiment with different drafts of the story to see what works best. Here`s where we need a good critique partner. Like my wife. She just trashed two of my chapters. What would I do without her?

  11. Another great post. I love keeping my backstory secret for as long as possible. That’s how you get that “Whoa!” out of the reader. I’ve been hanging out on the Kindle WriteOn website and I am constantly telling new writers to cut out the backstory (they are absolutely in love with their prologues). Every one of them will say, “But the reader needs to know!” I say, “I’m the reader and I don’t give a f-.” Anyway, it is a tough habit to beat, but once you get it, it makes the story so much better. Everyone loves a good surprise that’s been right there in front of them for 200 pages.

    Thanks for an awesome website, KM.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      A habit for only a format. If a person opts to write differently, they’ll experience new and different urges.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think that’s the thing we often forget when dealing with critiquers–the critiquers *are* our readers. If they’re bored, why won’t “regular” readers be too?

  12. Great point, Katie! In the new series I’m outlining, I was planning on having the MC’s pivotal backstory moment be revealed within the first act. Now I’m wondering if it might be a lot more impactful if I moved the reveal up toward the third act… Funny how I’ve never really thought about such a simple concept.
    A great example of this is the Locke Lamora series, by Scott Lynch. Scott utilizes a dual timeline brilliantly; in the first timeline, we learn important pieces of backstory about young Locke just in time to understand what’s happening to older Locke in the present-day timeline. He does it over and over throughout the series, and it never gets repetitive or predictable. Fantastic stuff.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have Lock Lamora waiting for me on my (very full) shelf. I hear good things about it, so really looking forward to it!

      • It’s a fantastic story, and the characters are wonderful. It was also one of the crassest things I’d ever read–if I hadn’t liked the characters so darn much I probably would have stopped in the first book. There’s only so many genitalia references you can make before it starts getting really redundant. >.< If you can get past that, it's pretty good.

  13. Catherine says:

    I had to ponder the answer to that question for a while. It would be difficult to get across accurate facts about my protagonist’s backstory, since she, as the POV character, is an unreliable witness. I’d say the important stuff about her early life won’t be realized until the sequel/part 2 — unless you count the reveal mid-story in part 1, but that should only be realized as significant in retrospect. And what happened between then and the “now” of part 1 page 1, well, there’s only two individuals who could tell that story reliably: witness #1 is dead before page 1, and witness #2… is the one who killed witness #1 for knowing too much.

    But the backstory definitely makes a huge impact on who the character is, and WHY she is who she is.

    My struggle is hinting at her backstory without a) leaving readers totally in the dust by being too subtle, or, conversely, b) overcompensating by making the hints too obvious. I would guess that my tendency is towards the former, but it is really difficult for me to get a feel for whether or not I’m hitting that sweet spot between too subtle / too obvious. Ack. Another problem whose first solution could probably be summed up in two words: beta readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Beta readers are always good for that. Write it how you think it should be, then get some objective readers to help you figure out if you’ve been too subtle – or too on the nose.

  14. Thanks for this. Great info. “Until the reader must know” is a great rule of thumb. My writing teacher summed it up pretty well too. About my protagonist, she said,”His past only matters in relation to what he does with it in the present.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Great way to put it. If the backstory doesn’t matter the plot, it doesn’t matter to the reader.

  15. I think I put my backstory too early. Right at the beginning the protagonist meets someone from her past, which is the most important thing. Without that happening, the story wouldn’t be existing. And about a few pages later she thinks about the day they first met. Thanks for your help, I’ll probably move that information to a later point in the book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’ve set up a great hook that will make readers interested in learning the backstory later on!

  16. jeff chandler says:

    I have worked over and over trying to solidify my opening line to *hook readers* [His father’s last words had been, “Don’t bother coming back less ya make somethin’ a yer self.” He hadn’t even bothered to come out of thee barn to see young Russell leave.] Is this now not supposed to be there?! (Dazed and confused)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good hook. It presents background for the character, but also a promise of the future: that the character, presumably, *has* or will make something of himself. But I would probably hold off on revealing much more about what happened between him and his father. Use that as a hook to make readers wonder *why* his father hated him.

  17. Love this! I love stories with lots of secrets from the past. Although prior situations that will aren’t interesting and don’t affect the actual plot could be a undertaking to be able to slog by way of.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The other “only” rule about backstory that matters is that the backstory has to be interesting and matter to the plot.

  18. This is a good tip! I’m going keep it in mind as I revise my MS.

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