A Writer’s Comprehensive Guide to Backstory

Hello, welcome to Everything You Need to Know About Backstory! I’m K.M. Weiland, and you are listening to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast or watching it because this is also a video post.

This video is in answer to a question from SW, who asked:

“I’m interested in how you figure out how to chunk backstory and sprinkle it through the story.”

This is always a pertinent question, because wherever you have a story, obviously, you have backstory. Backstory, simply put, is whatever comes before the main story. Generally speaking, backstory is the history of the characters or maybe the story world. It could be whatever has happened in the protagonist’s life up to that point, or it could be multigenerational, going into very in-depth world-building and such in different types of stories, whether it’s fantasy or historical or something like that. In any type of story, backstory and how you treat will always be a consideration because it is a big deal. It’s very important and can, in a lot of ways, make or break how well the main part of your story comes across.

What Is Backstory?

So functionally, what is backstory and what is the point of it within a story?

Functionally, backstory exists primarily to create context for the main story by indicating something happened before the main events of the story. From it, we immediately get this sense of verisimilitude. It’s like the iceberg with 7/8th under the water, where there’s more than meets the eye. Even in stories where the backstory itself isn’t conveyed or isn’t shared with readers explicitly or otherwise, it still gives us this sense of a world that’s bigger than just whatever is being conveyed on the page. That can go a long way toward creating a sense of depth and nuance and intricacy within your story, which can be really important for pulling readers in.

In a lot of stories, the backstory will be very important to the main story and will need to be brought out and shared in some way that’s more than just incidental. This is usually the case in stories in which we want to get clear on what is motivating the characters in the main part of the story.

Backstory Creates Character Motivation

So, aside from just bringing in color and dimension, the primary purpose of backstory and why it’s important is that it allows us to create a sense of depth and cause and effect to a character’s motivation within the main part of the plot. Sometimes the reason for a character’s goal in the main part of the plot will be directly connected to a major backstory event. It couldn’t happen unless this backstory event happened first and then was brought in and explained in the story.

In other stories, the primary thing that kicks off the character’s goal and make them willing to pursue it throughout the main plot will be something that happens in the main story. But even in these instances, backstory can be important because it gives us a sense of who this person is and why they might react to the events in this story in such a way.

Why, for instance, is the detective so obsessed with catching this particular bad guy? We’ve seen this in many mysteries and thrillers where it’s not just because it’s his job; it’s because there’s something in his own backstory that mirrors this or is triggered by it. There’s a personal reason that makes the events of the plot personal, even if they really aren’t that personal (as they often aren’t, at least on the surface in detective stories because it’s just his job—he’s just doing his job). When we bring in the backstory, it allows us to explore the depth and the nuance of that motivation.

The Ghost in Your Character’s Backstory

One of the most useful terms for exploring the true depth and importance of backstory is the Ghost. This is a term that was originated by John Truby in his book The Anatomy of Story. You may often hear it used—or another word used similarly, and that is the Wound.

The Ghost is something that has happened in the character’s past that is deeply influential to the choices that are made in the main part of the story. The idea of the Ghost is that it’s something that haunts the character. It’s something that needs to be laid to rest, whether it’s directly influencing the events of the plot or, like in our detective example, it’s just something that is there for him or her. It’s something that is influencing and giving reason and purpose to why they’re willing to go to the extremes they’re going to go to in the main plot.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

The Ghost is important particularly when you are dealing with character arcs. In a character arc, the character begins with a limiting Lie They Believe, a perspective about the world that is limiting or dysfunctional in some way. In a Positive Change Arc, the character would arc out of that into a more functional Truth.

The Ghost is what creates the circumstances of that Lie. The character has to have a reason why they are so invested in such an ultimately destructive point of view. What made them think this way? The answer could be something very simple. Perhaps this was just how they were brought up, and they have had no reason to question their belief structure because it was reasonably functional up to this point. In that case, even though the Ghost is not horrific or traumatic, it’s still there in the backstory and explains why the character is the way they are in the beginning of the main story.

However, a lot of times, as the names suggest, the Ghost or Wound will be something a lot deeper with a lot more heft to it. It could be a very traumatic event that caused them, for example, to believe all people are bad or something like that, or that they’re not good enough, or that they don’t have the strength to do whatever is necessary to chase their dreams, or whatever is the Lie/Truth your character is trying to work with in your story that’s creating that inner conflict.

Primarily when you think of backstory and why it’s important, this is it: what is the Ghost in your character’s backstory? All the other backstory stuff—the stuff that doesn’t actually affect the main part of the plot—doesn’t matter. For example, generally speaking, it’s not going to matter where your character was born or what their birthday is or where they went to school. Even though all of that is a part of who they are and it’s their backstory, it’s not important to the main plot and therefore isn’t technically functional backstory within storyform as we think of it. So when you’re thinking about backstory and what to include, the first thing to think about is what’s your character’s Ghost? What is the catalyst in your character’s backstory that is kicking off the need for their character arc and the events of the external plot?

How Much Backstory Do You Need?

This is an important question. I think a lot of writers fall in love with their backstory. I can speak to this myself. I love writing backstory for my characters. I love that part of my outlining process where I get to dig deep into the character interviews and what I call the character sketches to find out everything about these people and about the world they live in. It’s so much fun, and there’s no pressure because there’s no need to create a plot out of it necessarily. You can explore all those things, like where they were born and what’s their birthday and who was their best friend in middle school and that kind of thing. And to you as the author, it’s fun, right? But most of that stuff is not going to be important to the story.

It’s very important for authors to get a sense of which pieces of the backstory are necessary to provide general verisimilitude and context that give the impression of this character as a dimensional real human being and what pieces are going to drive the plot. Pretty much anything else does not need to be in the story.

It’s very important to avoid self-indulgence when it comes to backstory. When it comes to backstory, the only things you’re going to include are those that actually matter to the plot, those that actually drive the plot. It’s just the same as when you’re thinking about why to include any part of a story or any extra character or any particular scene. The question is always: Does this affect the bottom line? If I pull this, will the story be impacted? Will the reader’s ability to understand the Climax be negatively affected? And if it’s not, then it probably doesn’t belong in the story. That’s just a good rule of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to backstory. Generally speaking, less is more.

3 Methods to Convey Backstory

There are several different techniques you can use to convey backstory. Last year, I did a three-part series about backstory techniques.

1. Sharing Backstory With the Backstory Drip

The main one is the one you’re going to want to use in pretty much any story, even if you do choose to use some of the other techniques. It is the most effective, the most invisible, and therefore the most useful of all backstory techniques. And that is the backstory drip.

Basically, you’re taking little bits and pieces of your backstory and slowly dripping it into the main narrative as the information becomes necessary or important for readers to be able to understand what’s going on. This technique is valuable because it doesn’t interrupt the main story. It allows you to create this seamless narrative of the main part of the story without boring readers with information dumps or with backstory that isn’t pertinent.

It’s very seamless, and usually how it’s introduced into the prose is via a sentence here or a paragraph there. It’s possible to do it in dialogue between characters, but it’s important that it’s not an “as you know, Bob” conversation in which two characters are sharing information they both already know. It needs to be a conversation that’s important to the plot and to the relationship between the characters and how that’s developing. It must actually move and change the plot as you go.

You can think of backstory as clues. It’s something you’re putting into the story because the readers need to know about it, but probably the characters do as well. It’s part of the discovery, and every little piece of the backstory that’s either discovered or that the character is able to see in a new light becomes a clue that changes the trajectory of their character arc and whatever they’re doing in the plot. We can see this in stories where the backstory is actually very important to the main story. It’s not just there in the background, but learning about it or recontextualizing it is really important to how the character moves through the main plot toward the plot goal.

Investigation stories are the most obvious example of this. For example, the movie State of Play with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck is a good example. You have the main plot where there’s this murder investigation the journalist is doing and the politicians that are kind of involved in it in Washington DC. But the backstory is super important, and the backstory is just the relationship between Russell Crowe’s character and Ben Affleck’s character and Ben Affleck’s wife, who is played by Robin Wright. And this backstory becomes really important. It’s not that the characters don’t know about it, but as they slowly share it with us and as they slowly revisit it themselves and recontextualize it, it changes their understanding and their perception of themselves, of their relationships, and ultimately their ability to understand what’s going on in the investigation part of the main plot.

State of Play (2009), Universal Pictures.

In a story like this, you can see how important the backstory is, how crucial and integral it is, and also how important it is to sew it in bit by bit. If you just dumped it at the beginning or in a big scene, then you lose the ability to not just tease readers, but also to allow readers to experience that backstory along with the characters. It becomes a shared experience between the characters and the readers.

This is why the backstory drip is the single best way to convey backstory. You will use it in almost any story even if you use some of the other techniques. These other techniques I’m going to mention are equally valid and can be extremely helpful and useful. But they are a little bit gimmicky. So you have to be careful because they’re more in the reader’s face. Readers have to be really interested in the backstory to get these techniques to work because it requires more of an investment from them.

2. Sharing Backstory in a Prologue

The first of these techniques is the prologues. A prologue is basically an extra chapter at the beginning of the story that features extraneous information. Prologues, in general, are very tricky. Essentially, the prologue is your Hook. This is what has to pull readers into the story even though it’s not actually the first part of the structural narrative. It’s set apart, and if you don’t do a good enough job of hooking readers in, it can seem too separate from what follows and not a good hook. It’s not something that pulls them in.

Too often, particularly in years past, writers have been guilty of using this as a place to just info dump the backstory: here’s what happened, here’s the entire life story or the entire world history of the world I’ve built or whatever. That’s not a good hook. If you’re going to use a prologue for your backstory, you want to think of it as a tease. It’s a part of the drip, right?

Still, it needs to really hook readers. It should be so much explaining what’s going on as getting them to want to know more: Oh my gosh, this thing happened in the backstory and the character’s past, and I want to know why and I want to know what happens next because how does someone respond to that?!

From there, you can pull into the main story because they’re invested—they have a reason to want to know based on the backstory you’ve shared in the prologue.

3. Sharing Backstory in Flashbacks

Like prologues, flashbacks are also dramatized scenes of the backstory. Unlike prologues, they are interspersed throughout the main part of the narrative, and you might have one or you might have several. They can be as short as a few paragraphs, or they can be as long as a couple of chapters.

The great thing about flashbacks and the reason you might want to use them is because they show instead of tell. It allows readers to be right there, to viscerally experience whatever it is that happened in the character’s backstory without needing to be told about it.

The downside of this is that it chops up your narrative. It breaks up the flow of the main narrative so you can go back in time and share something. Particularly if readers aren’t as interested in the backstory as you want them to be, that’s going to be problematic. They might end up skipping the flashback or skimming it or just giving up on the story because, Oops, this is not what I wanted to be reading about. At the very best, flashbacks can create a disjointed feeling to the narrative. You have to be careful how you use flashbacks and how often you put in flashbacks and how long they are.

In last month’s video, we talked about multiple plot lines, of which alternating timelines can be one variation. This is basically where you’re expanding upon the flashback idea, but you’re telling the entire backstory as a second story in which you’re alternating the chapters throughout the entire book. This obviously would only be appropriate in stories where the backstory is huge, is equally dramatic and interesting as the main story and is extremely pertinent to the main timeline.

In stories like this (and really in any kind of story where you are alternating between POVs, plot lines, or timelines), I used to say, “You have to make sure each one is just as interesting to readers as the other one because otherwise they’re just going to skip and get back to it.” But what does that mean? What does it mean that “you have to make each one as interesting as the other”? Because a lot of times writers will say, “Well, the backstory is really exciting. All this incredibly dramatic stuff happens. There’s battles! It’s so exciting. Readers will love it!”

But that’s not necessarily true because the action in your backstory isn’t what makes it interesting. What makes it interesting to readers is emotional urgency. They need a reason to care about what’s happening to the point that they’re willing to read all the details and to spend a lot of time in these chapters or in these flashback scenes instead of just wanting to get back to the main part of the timeline and continue with that because they are invested in that.

Therefore, the key, if you’re going to do lengthy flashbacks or alternating timelines, is that you want to make sure there’s emotional urgency. Readers have to really want to know what happens in the backstory enough that they are willing to experience it. It must be just as important to them as whatever is happening in the main part of the story.

So when it’s done well, this approach can be fantastic. When it’s not done well, it can slow down your story and cause problems. It’s something to do to use with caution. Study how it’s done in stories that kept your attention and that you really enjoyed, so you can understand the difference between dumping backstory or sharing backstory that isn’t as interesting as the main story versus something that is really integral and interesting and is driving the emotional momentum of your story.

The Single Most Important Rule About Backstory

And all of that brings me to what I think is the single most important rule about backstory. This affects what kind of backstory you share in your story and when you share it. Now, it is a rule of thumb; it’s not going to apply universally. But it is a great little dictum to have in your head to ask yourself, “You know, do I want to put the backstory in here? Do I want to share this backstory?”

This number one rule for backstory is simply this: do not share backstory until you’ve reached a point in the story where it’s crucial for readers to know this backstory in order to be able to understand the main story.

This also includes any scenes in which it’s necessary for your characters to know the backstory or to remember the backstory or just to explain their actions via the backstory so the plot can move forward.

Again, this is not a hard and fast rule, but generally speaking, readers don’t care about your backstory until it becomes important to the main story. This is also a great way to help you build subtext within your story. If you’re just hinting at backstory (e.g., “something happened in the backstory, there was a Ghost, but I’m not gonna tell you what it is yet”), but it’s important and it’s driving the character’s reactions, that’s a way to pull readers along so that by the time you do get to where maybe you want to have a big reveal via a fully dramatized flashback, now you have emotional urgency. Now, readers will think, “Okay, I really want to know what happened in the character’s backstory, versus maybe sharing that flashback early on when I don’t care, I don’t have a reason to care yet about why this is so important.”

In sharing backstory too soon, you sap subtext out of the character’s actions and motivations because it’s all been explained—it’s all been laid out there. Now, obviously, you do need to lay it out there sometimes, and that’s the point of the rule. When the backstory becomes necessary, when it becomes pertinent, that’s when you want to share it. You also don’t want to compromise your story by not sharing backstory, and causing readers to think, “Well, this makes no sense. Why would the character act this way? What information am I missing that would have made sense of the explanation of the characters’ relationships with people who they had a past history with?”

To sum up, the importance of backstory is that it provides context. It provides a Ghost for your character’s arc. From that, it allows you to build this dimension and this depth into your main narrative. But it’s important not to overshare or to overvalue backstory. It’s important, but it should only be used carefully and subtly throughout the story to create an effect where readers are never pulled out of the main narrative, where it’s all one seamless whole, and everything that happens is building and adding to the emotional momentum of the story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think are the trickiest parts of sharing backstory? 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.

Comments

  1. In the story I’m working on at the moment, I only touch on the main character’s back story as to why he’s getting bullied. It’s just that he’s bad at sports and into Star Wars. However, I do link his father’s back story because the father was once arrested and the police’s attitude is like father like son.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, sometimes backstory can even be multi-generational. A character’s influences can go way back.

      • Thanks. This is a great help. I’m brand new to writing a story, and just dripped the first hint of the backstory. A little at the time will be fun to share.

  2. It goes deeper than just back story: background and heritage come into it too, as does appearance in the case of the written word (unlike ‘on screen’).

    I recently decided that a regular ‘bit part’ character in my book series should be of part Afro Caribbean heritage, and therefore appearance, to fit the plot of the current WIP better.

    His ethnicity hadn’t been mentioned before (over several published novels)… I hadn’t even considered it. It didn’t matter… but nothing in any of the plots or descriptions pointed to him being particularly ‘white’ (or Asian, Oriental, Mediterranean etc.). In the UK, particularly the area where my novels are set, one’s ethnicity is generally unimportant. We all mix freely and get on fine, and as he’s a CofE clergyman, his ethnicity wouldn’t be out of place, but neither would it warrant any comment (until the current plot issue raised its head).

    I checked back to make sure nothing about his background precluded this, then took the opportunity to seed a reference to his Caribbean grandparents in one of the earlier novels… made easy because they’re all being revamped prior to re-publishing, due to a change of publisher (some of the early books were edited by a different editor. My current editor wanted to make a few valid changes).

    The altered book will be re-issued soon, so I caught it in time (It’s only a single line addition). The character already had a predilection for certain Caribbean foods and his parish is in an area of a multicultural city (Bristol) with a sizeable black community which long pre-dates even the ‘Windrush generation’, so it wasn’t too far beyond the bounds of credibility for him to be black or of mixed race.

    • It’s difficult when something comes up in a series. I’ve had one or two sensible suggestions for my current WIP, but as it’s part of a series, several books already written, I could, sadly do nothing about it, except rewrite the whole lot! Not gonna happen.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The great thing about self-publishing and POD these days is that we do have the opportunity to go back and change even published books.

      • True, Katie… but it’s a bit of a kop-out, and the readers of the earlier books will have already read them. Fortunately, in the case outlined above, the character’s ethnic origin wasn’t mentioned, although, co-incidentally, his liking for Caribbean cuisine has cropped up (both in that book, and subsequent novels), so giving him a West Indian grandparent wasn’t too much of a strain on credibility, and only took a single line of text (easily ‘forgotten’ by earlier readers).

        I worried more about the major re-vamp of the first two books in my series, to become a trilogy, but my new publisher and I both agreed it was a good idea, and as they were first published around a decade ago, the new books could be re-launched without too much aggro.

        We took one of the plot threads from the over complex (and long) first book to use in the new ‘middle’ book of the trilogy, then wove in a new but related plot alongside it. The first book had a satisfactory ending, followed by a twist in the tail. I simply moved that twist in the tale to become the ending of the new middle book. The original sequel to the first book (now part 3 of the trilogy) was set a couple of years after part one (and now part 2). It too got a serious re-write, also losing a sub plot which didn’t really add to the main plot.

        All three books can be read as single stories, though there’s the inevitable problem with spoilers if they’re read out of order.

  3. As usual, a plethora of useful insights into characterization.

  4. I’m a nonfiction author working on my first novel, and what feels like a DIY MFA in the process (I’m reading and watching lots of craft content along the way, like this post). This article is super helpful. I wrote a prologue for backstory and have added lots of slow drips. I love the advice about waiting to reveal backstory until it’s necessary. When I started writing, I almost spilled a huge bit of backstory in the third chapter, then realized what impact it could have later in the story. I’m 50K words in now, and still haven’t written that part, but I know when I’ll need it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, sometimes it’s beneficial for writers to dump the backstory early on for our own benefit. Once we’ve gotten it our of our systems, we can always take it out or find ways to sow it in more artfully for readers’ benefit.

  5. Perhaps I’ve created a type of “flashback” and “flashforward”.
    My protagonists are a great grandfather in the 1860’s and his great grandson in the 1970’s. They of course never knew each other, and the great grandson had scant family history knowledge.

    The great grandfather, while on an evening walk in 1866 Indianapolis, he felt an urge to go into a theater. While workers were busily arranging the sets, they move all around him with out acknowledgement, as if he were a ghost. It’s an ethereal experience as he envisions the room with a dance floor and sees a man, almost as if it were him, dancing with a beautiful lady.
    In another chapter, I describe his great grandson in that same room, 110 years later, dancing with his girlfriend.

    In another instance, the great grandson, takes his wife to the Indianapolis Hyatt for a romantic weekend. While waiting his turn at the reservation desk he notices a photo of the old previous hotel at this location. He becomes mesmerized in thought. When “awakened” from his concentration by the desk clerk, he unexplainably asks for room 116, the same room number occupied by his great grandfather in the old hotel, with his lover, over 100 years earlier.

    As I alternated chapters between centuries, I wanted to give readers a sense of the connection that would eventually occur after the climatic event.

  6. I’m pretty sure I’ve included plenty of unnecessary backstory in my current WIP that will have to come out eventually. I just think it’s so interesting! But as you point out, if it doesn’t advance the story, it shouldn’t be there. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. William Prenevost (Truesdell) says

    Is it okay to use more than one, even all three types of backstory in a controlled, methodical way? Mine is a historical fiction, a saga of a family over three generations.

  8. Great post! The video was great, too. I love backstory, both in my own works and books that have stuck with me. Dripping the backstory throughout the book takes a lot of self-discipline, because, like you said, it is so tempting to spill it all out all at once. You mentioned prologues, and my favorite example of a great prologue is in Tara Johnson’s historical novel, “All Through the Night.” Details in the prologue tie into the narrative later in the plot and become the key into understanding one of the main characters. Thanks for the tips on how to use this powerful tool!

  9. I love backstory because while I might not have details yet, it gives me yet another place to go if I want to write a sequel in that same world. An idea to pluck so to speak.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. It’s a great place to go just when stuck in a standalone as well. It can loosen things up and provide more context, whether you end up including it explicitly in the narrative or not.

  10. Very thoughtful. 🙏

  11. Andy Williams says

    Thank you for this timely podcast. I’ve been working on my memoir for the last couple of years. I created a more detailed outline last month using Campbell and Vogler templates of the Hero’s Journey. I fell down a rabbit hole when I found your materials on story structure, scene writing, etc. Trying to find the right balance between the framework and returning to writing.

    I started with the end of Act I (thanks for the distinction between Inciting and Key events) and just finished the first chapter with some backstory. Queue your most recent podcast 🙂

    Are there any differences when working on a backstory for memoir vs fiction in your judgment? Thanks for all the assistance so far!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you’re finding the material helpful! Memoir and fiction are very similar when it comes to structure and narrative technique. Although backstory is often extremely important in memoir, it should be handled with the same careful techniques as in fiction.

  12. I’ve been hanging onto this post for several weeks waiting until I have a big chunk of quiet time to read and reread it. What great insight! All of these posts have been so helpful with my current project.

    I’ve just finished writing a novel that involves lots of flashbacks, but not just to a single period of time, but a variety of periods throughout the MC’s adulthood. It’s the final book in a series, but I wanted it to be able to stand alone, so it needed enough backstory to know the characters’ histories, without repeating too much content from previous stories.

    Although I knew the bulk of my MC’s backstory, many of the pieces shared in this final work were new experiences and encounters I did not know about her prior to writing this novel. In that sense, at times it felt as if inventing a backstory was a crutch because the pieces are only important as they pertain to the current timeline, but perhaps that’s what authors *should* do. 🤷‍♀️

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