When Your Backstory Becomes Your Story

Backstory is called backstory for the very reason that it belongs in back of the story. It’s not the point of the story; it’s only, in a sense, the explanation for the story. So, naturally, you’re always careful not to let the backstory take over. You’re alert to its sneaky attempts to horn in and hog more of the limelight than it deserves. But what if your backstory does merit more time than you’re currently giving it?

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Whenever I outline a story, I always write in-depth backstories for all the characters. Sometimes those backstories end up taking on a life of their own, to the point that the backstory actually ends up being more informative and compelling than the original plot.

So what do you do if this happens to you?

You may want to stick with your original story, which will mean stuffing your upstart backstory back where it belongs. Often this means simplifying complicated motivations and trigger points in your characters’ pasts, so you can explain them in the story proper with the least amount of trouble or potential confusion to the reader.

However, there are a couple more options.

Maybe your story is too big for just one book. Maybe you should consider turning it into a series, with the backstory featured as the first book.

Or maybe you’ll want to go ahead and write your original story, with an eye toward using the backstory in a prequel later on.

It’s also possible that you may want to ditch your original plot altogether. If the backstory is the more interesting of the two, it’s the story that deserves to be told.

Finally, you might want to consider the popular if sometimes tricky technique of framing your backstory as a lengthy (we’re talking hundreds of pages) flashback, with the main plot appearing at the beginning and end of the book, much as William Faulkner did in his classic Light in August.

Whatever your choice, just remember that what interests you most is probably what will interest your readers as well.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever had a backstory take over your book? 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. Hannah Killian says

    I feel like it is with at least one story. Maybe two?

  2. I only recently realized this about the tory I was writing. I had already gone past 80,000 words with an additional 24,000 words (after a two year jump). Then I thought that it could possibly be because there was a possibility that the beginning of my story could fit well as a back story but he difficulty of inserting it in the second half of the book.. scares me. I’ve decided to make it a two part series but I’m not sure the ending before the 2 year break works.

  3. I think Dudley Pope and Nevil Shute were the masters here. Shute was an engineer, Pope a naval historian, so when they wrote about aeroplanes or ships you got the impression that the backstory was going on somewhere off the edges of the page, very real but not intruding.

    I’ve tried to do this for SF, but I’ve had to do complete spaceship designs to make them consistent, then leave most of what I’ve designed out of the story.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, when it comes to backstory, I always think of of Ernest Hemingway’s comment about the “7/8 of the iceberg under the water.”

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