Discover the Perfect Place to Insert Backstory

backstory pinterestHow is an author to know the perfect place to insert backstory?

Sooner or later, most authors feel constrained by the technique of opening a story in medias res, when we know readers won’t fully comprehend events unless we’ve first given them an understanding of the important backstory that preceded the opening. But by the same token, we’ve all read stories that opened with backstory—and bored us out of our socks.

So what’s a clever writer to do?

We could do worse than to follow Ernest Hemingway’s masterful example in his classic short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” The story, about a rich, ineffective man on a safari hunt with his spiteful wife, opens smack in the middle of things.

The very first sentence, which tells us “it was now lunch time” and the characters were “pretending that nothing had happened,” lets us know something important has preceded the opening of the story. Hemingway immediately hooks readers with curiosity, then plunges head on into his story. Not until ten pages later does he slow to explain important backstory—in this case the main character’s cowardice in the face of a wounded lion.

If Hemingway had dumped the backstory at the beginning, readers would have no way of knowing how important this initial event was. But because he took the time to engage their curiosity and raise the stakes, readers were not only willing to sit through the backstory, they were champing at the bit to learn about it.

The important lesson here is two-fold:

1. Backstory must matter. If it doesn’t matter in a way that moves the plot forward, it doesn’t deserve to be told.

2. It must be artfully placed within the story so readers understand its importance to the plot and can’t wait to discover the secrets in your characters’ pasts.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where is the first mention of backstory in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great post!

    In Homebody, I think I wait until about page 6 or 7 before there’s a hint of backstory, and even then, it’s only a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph. In Cora’s Song (still working on a new title!), the first chapter is basically a prologue and, hence, backstory. It’s exciting, but I haven’t decided if it’ll stay there, or if it’ll get worked in sometime later as a flashback. The way the story is told now, it’s completely linear, and I think it’s working best that way.

  2. I’m actually a big fan of non-linear stories, but the simplest (and therefore usually the best) route is always the linear one. The trickier we get with readers, the more likely we are to lose them.

  3. Anonymous says

    I have a few lines of a memory in the third pagaraph using dialogue. The heroine is meeting her proposed fiance for the first time. It shows he abused his now dead wife and enforces her motivation for escaping.

    I struggle with backstory, because I want to put it in. Learning to use dialogue and keep it short.

    Thanks! I just recently found your site and have learned some great tips.

    Melissa K. Norris (Dumb blogger won’t let me comment w/ account)

  4. Another great post! I think your point about backstory needing to matter to the plot is one that is often overlooked by newer writers. Maybe the protagonist was once a pole dancer for college money, but unless there’s some bearing on the zombie apocalypse she’s facing now, it’s best to keep the stripper details to a minimum or leave it out entirely.

    FYI, I sent an email nominating your blog for the 101 Best Websites for Writers contest. Good luck!

  5. It’s great to entice by partially withholding back story, by hinting and tempting at the beginning and revealing little by little to tease your readers, though knowing how much to give them how soon can often be a little like guesswork: too little and they lose interest; too much and the storyline becomes predictable. (A good supply of beta readers comes in handy here!)

    As a genre, fantasy is a little harder to juggle with though, since often when you’re creating a whole new world, a lot of the back story is drawing the history rather than just colouring in the plot. The knack then is knowing what you can afford to leave out. (Sometimes, even your back story has back story of its own! Where does it end?)

  6. I’m struggling with this in my novel. The back story (100 years ago) is important, so I’ve written it linearly as a prologue of 5 scenes. I’ve been told by some that a prologue is the kiss of death. I originally had it placed in the story midway through part one, but the timing was confusing, so ended up putting it at the front.

  7. @Melissa: Brief backstory rarely goes amiss. The trick is to give readers just enough to make things clear, while still leaving enough gaps that they’ll want to read on to find the answers.

    @M.E.: Thanks! I appreciate the nomination. 🙂 Relevancy is definitely the litmus test for backstory. We *all* have interesting stories in our pasts, but, for our characters, they’re only worth bringing up if add the present story.

    @Dave: Fantasy comes with its own set of challenges, to be sure. I just started Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, and, in the first sixty pages, he does a masterful job of hinting at backstory just enough to intrigue readers and keep them interested as he dispenses with the necessary – and otherwise potentially dull – chores of introducing characters and settings.

    @Parrot: It depends on the story, of course, but, generally, I would advise against prologues, especially lengthy ones. Information from a hundred years past rarely needs to be told in lengthy and precise detail. Authors can almost always pare the info down to the bare essentials and then scatter those details throughout the body of the story, using them as little hooks to intrigue readers and keep them reading on to find out more.

  8. Wow! I connected with your blog via twitter KM. What a great resource for writers.

    I myself am a screenwriter and I like to hide backstory; and reveal it slowly through relationship; which if you think about it really where our pasts affect us in this present day.

    I write a daily seven sentence blog for creative types, which you can check sometime if you like…

    Thanks again

  9. Screenwriters are often more subtle with their backstory than novelists, if only because they’re constrained from outright dumps for the most part. Most of us could learn a lot from the way movies handle backstory. Glad you stopped, by Geoff!

  10. Thanks for the advice. I’m struggling with back story in the novel I’m currently writing. It important to the story and understanding the characters motives, but I’m just not quite sure how to weave it into the story.

  11. Wow. You know, I KNEW that. But sometimes you need to hear something said in a certain way to make it really click. And you totally just did that for me. Backstory must MATTER. Yes!

  12. @Lovelyn: Try to think of your backstory as a series of revelations. Every time you reveal something about the backstory, it should be, not just a disclosure of information, but a revelation to the reader. Space out your revelations to give them ultimate punch and tease the reader with hints, so he can’t wait to reach the next one.

    @Sarah: Great! This is one of those principles that we all know on the ground level, but which can be a little more difficult to actually implement. Glad you found the post useful.

  13. RD nomination is in, and I’ve looked back through two w.i.p. to be able to answer your question. In one the first backstory occurs on page 9 and the other it’s on page 7, both just two- and three-sentence references. I always worry that backstory will be too “telling” so I try to keep it brief, inserting bits on a need-to-know basis, but it still seems like I’ve jumped in to explain something… you know, that author intrusion thing. I’m trying to keep the revelations in the character’s voice and that seems to be helping in the one story. I like your explanation that backstory must be artfully placed to hook the reader’s curiosity, not just to provide information. Great tip, thanks!

  14. Aghhh… that would be WD nomination, of course!

  15. I’ll take all the nominations I can get – WD or RD! 😉 Thanks, Carol. Brief backstory references on pages 7 and 9 sound just about perfect. If you can tantalize readers a little bit, then dole out the backstory like breadcrumbs on a trail to the truth, you’ve got it made.

  16. One thing I’ve learned is to keep the story focused on the present as much as possible and work in the back story only when absolutely necessary. That said, I, too, have a prologue that takes place five years before the “main” story. I haven’t decided yet whether the prologue is necessary or if it would be better a back story inserted later on in the novel.

  17. Prologues can be risky business, both from a storytelling perspective and because agents are notoriously sick of them. Prologues can be a wonderful technique, but, nine times out of ten, the information contained in them – particularly when it’s backstory – could be better served by artfully inserting it into the body of the book itself.

  18. I popped over to make a nomination for you. Good luck. Reading “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” was my aha moment for understanding voice. I like enough backstory near the beginning to make me ask questions that I’ll read on to answer.

  19. Thanks much, Leslie! I think “The Short Happy Life” was the first Hemingway story I read, years and years go. It’s still my favorite.

  20. So my own experiences with backstory have actually gone in the opposite direction. I was terrified of backstory in my first draft, and because of that, I went through the novel without giving the reader valuable information. Following suggestions by beta readers for more backstory, I went back to some popular books in my genre (YA), and looked at how much backstory was there — it turns out that there was quite a bit of backstory, introduced fairly early on in both examples I looked at. So I went back and added more backstory (making sure to do it well, of course). I blogged about the whole analysis here.

  21. That’s the problems with “the rules.” Writers (myself included sometime) grab onto them in fear of breaking them and drive them much farther than they were ever intended to be taken. The single most important element in becoming a skilled author is developing a keen story sense, so you can tell when something’s working and when it’s not. When your story sense tells you something’s working, you can then run with it, whether it flies in the face of “the rules” or not.

  22. What would you suggest for fantasy writers who are saving the backstory for a mystery as to why things in the story have panned out in such a way.

    Jason R

  23. Go ahead and save it, but sow seeds of foreshadowing so readers *know* you’re saving something and are dying with curiosity to find out what it is.

    • Okay, you’ve convinced me! At present, my WIP starts with my main character driving through the hometown she abandoned years before, noting how things have changed. Then I introduced a few characters, we come upon our first significant problem, and then I show her link to the Paranormal for the first time… Now I’m changing that all around!

      Let’s start by showing how the Paranormal wants to engage with HER, and then we’ll slip in the few bits showing the town and the other characters. Start with the exciting part and entice the reader to keep going!

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