Boring! How to Diagnose Your Bad Backstory

Backstory is the history of your character—the part of the story that happens before the story. As writers, it’s often tempting to think readers are every bit as fascinated with our characters backstories as we are.

But don’t be fooled.

Readers are only interested in what’s going to happen next.

If your character’s favorite cat getting stuck in the tree when the character was six doesn’t affect what’s going to happen next, readers couldn’t care less. And yet, in many stories, it’s vital readers be aware of the backstory

How to Share Fascinating Backstory: A Case Study

So how do you tell about the cat in the tree without boring readers into closing your book?

We need look no farther than Alexandre Dumas’s fanatically beloved classic The Three Musketeers to find a masterful presentation of backstory.

Athos, the de facto leader the Three Musketeers, has a secret in his past. It’s a grim, astonishing, fascinating secret, and as such, we might have expected Dumas to have revealed it to readers right away.

The Three Musketeers Athos and Milady

The 2011 adaptation revealed the classic secret (SPOILER! that Athos and Milady were married) upfront, and robbed itself of much suspense as a result. (Matthew Macfadyen and Milla Jovovich in <i>The Three Musketeers</i> (2011), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, produced by Summit Entertainment.)

Instead, Dumas holds his hand for almost half the book, so he can deliver Athos’s backstory at the most poignant moment possible. And when he does reveal the secret, he does so in a modicum of words that allows the story to proceed at full speed. He gives readers all they need to know in just a quick scene a dialogue.

The Three Musketeers Athos and Aramis

How do you know when a backstory revelation is important to your story? It moves the plot. If it doesn’t move the plot, it doesn’t deserve to be included. (Matthew Macfadyen and Luke Evans in <i>The Three Musketeers</i> (2011), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, produced by Summit Entertainment.)

2 Steps to Perfectly Placed Backstory

Dumas’s mastery of backstory teaches us several lessons.

1. Hint early on your character has a backstory, but wait to reveal it until the last possible moment, right before the information becomes crucial.

2. Instead of indulging in lengthy flashback scenes that stall your momentum, present the backstory in a powerful punch with as few words as possible.

If you do, readers will find your backstory as fascinating as you do!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is there an important backstory reveal in your story? Where have you put it? 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. The Three Musketeers is one of my favorite books, and you’re right–Dumas does backstory beautifully. I call the process you described maintaining urgency. If my backstory interferes with the reader’s need to know what happens next, I have to cut it. And I know and angst about every single spot in my work where I don’t take my own advice :-D.

    You do such a good job with these video posts!

  2. Wow, great post. I’ve been working on sprinkling backstory into my MS from having it all lumped at the beginning.
    This video has really helped me as to where I’m going next. Thanks:)

  3. @Adventures: I like the term “maintaining urgency.” It perfectly illustrates what any backstory needs to achieve.

    @Lyndsey: Backstory is like salt. Sprinkle it throughout, and you’ll have the perfect flavor.

  4. Fabulous vlog post! I know I have trouble with backstory. I have trouble knowing whether I’m short changing the reader by leaving something out, or putting it in, it’s a delicate balance ;o)

    How do you keep coming up with such inventive posts? You Rock.

  5. That’s where good beta readers come in. If you’re not certain you’re achieving the effect you want, get someone else’s objective opinion. If it doesn’t work for them, you know you need to start fiddling.

  6. Always new and valuable information, either on your blog or your vlog. You amaze me. 😉

  7. Glad you find it helpful!

  8. I just read a book where there was a random backstory (told in flashback mode) about some of the characters finding lockpicks when they were young. I thought, okay, the next scene in the present must relate by so-and-so. But no. It never related to the present. It wasn’t even that great a flashback, so I was super disappointed.

    Maybe the author should have seen this tip first!

  9. A good rule of thumb regarding flashbacks is that if it’s important enough to be told, it’s probably too important to be backstory and deserves a place in the story proper.

  10. Hey, your voice audio is now in stereo! Gj!

    If you like Dumas, check out Steven Brust’s Khaavren romances based on the Three Musketeers tales.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaavren_Romances

    The first two, The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, are among the best fantasies I’ve ever read. They also use a tonal device that’s amazingly engrossing, an unreliable narrator named Paarfi, who is possessed of a singular literary voice, and whose pen’s flavor can quickly infect one if one is not very careful.

  11. Switched over to a stereo mic. Voila! Problem solved.

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check them out!

  12. wow great…interesting blog to improve writing. Should come back to read more.

  13. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Annie Lynn says

    How do you do it, how do you make me want to read the books you’re talking about. I would love to hear how you’d make the cat getting stuck in the tree matter. 😉 😉

  15. Oh, I’m sure there’s a story out there with a fascinating backstory about a cat in a tree!

  16. Especially if it’s a story about an alien or zombie cat stuck in a tree. Can’t get enough of EITHER one of those.

    I didn’t read The Three Musketeers until I was an adult. I found that it unfolds so beautifully that I couldn’t put it down.

    Re: editing your own stories:
    I found that when I went back to edit my first novel I didn’t need most of my backstory. I needed to write it to cement the character in my own mind, but once I’d done that it was a lot easier to convey what/who she was in just a few scenes.

    Great tips today. Thanks!

  17. If you’re a seat of the pantster who figures out who your characters as you go along, then I’d say writing down the backstory is probably vital. As rather obsessive outliner, I have my backstory lined up and written out long before I start writing the book… which means I have absolutely no excuse for sticking it in where it doesn’t belong!

  18. My struggle is that I don’t know if I have a unique twist/use of back story or if I am just destined to cure insomnia.
    The idea of my story is about the many secrets of the back story, the main character is aloof and jaded but the reader doesn’t know what made her that way. They also see a limited scope of her personality.
    Her secrets come out in short chapters where two other characters show us glimpses of her past from their pov. (all in first person) This is also how other facets of her personality are exposed, the most vulnerable parts- the idea being that she becomes endearing.
    Am I onto something or just bound to be drowning in boring backstory?

  19. I love backstory when it’s well done. My own stories (Behold the Dawn in particular) rely on important details in the backstory. So long as you’re tastefully sifting the backstory details throughout your story, and so long as those details are absolutely necessary, you shouldn’t have a problem.

  20. Currently don’t have any. But maybe in future projects, I will have to work on them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All stories have backstories, even most of the history is never explained in the book. It’s always worthwhile to know where our characters have come from and what events are influencing their current motivations.

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