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3 Essential Questions for Better Backstory

Every character and every world in every story has history. It’s part of the richness that makes your characters come alive.

But how do you write backstory without overloading your reader?

3 questions for better backstory

Photo by Eduardo

Write Better Backstory Without Overloading Your Reader

In my experience, early drafts tend to overshare on backstories, giving the reader every detail of each character’s history, the first time the character is introduced. But this can seriously disrupt your story’s flow, bore readers and even cause confusion if you’re giving information that isn’t relevant.

As I work my way through my draft for a backstory check, I use three questions to keep backstory tight and supportive of the overall plot arc:

1. Does my reader need to know this?

Say your character has a scar on her knee from that time when she fell out of a tree when she was 10. It’s super that you know your character so well. But does your reader need to know about it?

Probably not. Keep backstory lean by deleting pieces like this, then review the section again to see if readers can understand the story without it.

2. Does my reader need to know this NOW?

My personal greatest pitfall is that once I start sharing backstory, I just can’t stop. Early drafts are full of heavy paragraphs of backstory, when really all I meant to include was one pertinent detail.

When I go back to edit, this question is my surgeon’s knife, cutting away all that is not necessary. I set the trimmed pieces aside in a separate document so I can add them to other parts of the manuscript as needed.

3. How can I show instead of tell?

Even with backstory, the rule “show, don’t tell” still applies.

No matter where you put backstory, avoid long explanatory paragraphs. Instead, find ways to show the critical details.

For example, if you need readers to know your character is a seasoned killer, instead of just having the character say so, let your readers observe the worn place of your character’s sword and the authoritative way s/he wields it without hesitation.

Backstories are a critical part of developing engaging characters. The only thing more important is how you deliver it—the way you share a backstory can bring your characters to life or prompt a reader to put your book down. With these three questions as a guide, you can ensure that backstory serves as a foundation for your plot, not dead weight.

How do you share your characters’ backstories?

PRACTICE

Write down the backstory for a character you created (or re-read it if you’ve already written it down). How much of this backstory does your reader really need to understand the plot? Share your findings in the comments!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

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  • Helen Earl

    I think the reader can certainly have too much backstory, but not so the writer.
    For one of my stories I created three page backstories for each of a group of 5 characters who all died in the first paragraph [in a cave-in]. Very little of this information made it to the final edit of the story, so the reader didn’t get bogged down with it. So why bother? For me it was a no brainer. I wouldn’t have interactions with other characters during the course of the action to show what they were like, who they were. So I had to create them as fully rounded characters in my own mind. That way, the other characters could and would react to their tragic deaths as if they had been living people, not just names on a page. I needed to know who would mourn them and how much. I needed to know if they’d been dating one of my living characters, or if they had been rivals. I had to know what needed to come out about them in order for the survivors to be true to their memories. Without burdening the reader with too many details, it coloured how the living spoke about them, which in turn revealed more about the active participants in the story.
    At least, that was my aim.

    • Sounds like your efforts to create detailed backstory really paid off. It’s a great lesson for me. 🙂

    • Very true, thanks Helen!

    • EJ Heijnis

      You could easily argue that since the deceased characters are discussed at length by the living ones, they have a much larger part in the story than their limited screen time suggests. It’s actually a very interesting reason to properly develop such characters.

    • I agree. For my current WIP one of the first things I did (after getting the basic idea) was to write backstories for each of the main characters. Not much of this will make it to the story itself, but I found it really helpful in bringing the characters to life in my own mind. I’d go so far as to say it was an essential part of the planning process.

    • Good points. Thanks for sharing.

    • Luther

      Good point and good info. Thanks

  • Thanks for your compelling blog. I’ve tended to be too lazy with backstory in the past,
    preferring a pantser process, rather than
    plotting out story/backstory upfront. Then I wondered how some past stories ended up
    in knots. Also, without a well known backstory, it’s easier to get stuck on the blank page. A bit of organizational effort up front gives additional
    vibrancy to character’s interaction and behavior. I’m disciplining myself to be more of a plotter in general, hopefully without losing my pantser spontaneity.

    • That’s the path I’m on too–trying to learn some plotter skills! Good luck!

    • I’m the same way. It’s tough to plan things out when you just want to dive in and let inspiration take over! 🙂

    • EJ Heijnis

      I love plotting things out! To me, shaping the framework of the story is exciting. I can see the plot twists in my mind, with little bits of description and dialogue flashing past, and I just know it’s going to be awesome when I get there. Knowing what I’m going to write lets me put all my concentration and effort into how I write it.

      • My next story will be plotted and you make me excited to go for it! 🙂

        • EJ Heijnis

          Awesome! I hope you have fun with it.

  • Christine

    Very relevant questions. It seems using a lot of back-story has become common in today’s books and it does drag the story line down. I’ve read some books where flashbacks happen so often and take up so many pages I can hardly keep track of what’s going on today. I tend to skip over a lot of this because I like to go forward. I want to read what the character does next and how this turns out.
    Just as an illustration, when my great-grandmother was a child she for some reason tried to jump off a shed roof and landed in such a way that she broke both ankles. And the bones never set right, so she walked with canes in her later years, if not all her life.
    I can tell you that in a paragraph, perhaps to explain why she was using two canes when her son (my grandpa) gets married, or I could do a three-page flashback to give you that information. But it stops the wedding process until she gets back from the day she broke her ankles.

    • Great example — sometimes I wonder too, would a character even share certain parts of their own backstory? I think of the end of Big Fish, when his son meets all the people from his father’s past and can suddenly see all the little twists of truth behind the tall tales he was told his whole life.

      • EJ Heijnis

        You make a good point there. Often, people don’t like to talk about things that happened in the past, especially if they were left with trauma of some kind. Unless that information is provided by someone else who was present or confided in at some point, we may have no way of knowing what happened.

    • Interesting. I suppose how much time was spent on the great-grandmother would depend on the overall themes of the story. She could just be dynamic bit player or someone who’s story contributes to the protagonist’s journey.

  • Sandra D

    Here’s an intro without the backstory for a character I am working with.

    Lisa shuffled into the room, pressed her pastel pink dress with sunshine disks down with her hands. Her lips raised in a smile but her eyes weren’t smiling and it was painful to watch. Even so several kids called out to her from their seats to sit next to them, their eager faces and their hands scooping across the air beckoning her to return to their clan for another year. She let out a small laugh and a sigh, it was a strange sight after summer. She met her friends at the seat they had reserved for her. She pressed her dress under her legs as she sat. A boy asked how her summer was, “Oh you know, nothing special. I really want to know about your summers. It’d be much more interesting I’m sure.”

    “No not really. We just skateboarded a lot,” said Jeff, pointing to his friend Ian. “that and swimming,” Jeff said.

    “I went on a summer vacation with my family. But it was kind of boring too. Why didn’t you answer calls all last month.” said Beth.

    “My family has a lot stuff that comes up with other family,” said Lisa shrugging her shoulders.

    Her friend put their hand on her back to have her hunch forward and they whispered inappropriate jokes. Lisa let out a laugh, forgetting her troubles. School had begun.

    • Thanks for sharing Sandra! I like how this intro gives us a little insight into Lisa’s personality and feelings about the first day of school — and leaves you curious to know more about what happened to her over the summer. It’s telling that she doesn’t want to talk about it.

    • EJ Heijnis

      This works very well as an intro, because you raise all kinds of questions that makes me want to keep reading. I feel you nailed the atmosphere in the classroom right on the head.

    • This is a fun beginning. Keep going!

  • EJ Heijnis

    This guy doesn’t have a name yet, so I’ll call him Captain Placeholder. He is one of the main characters in the science fiction/steampunk trilogy I’m developing. His parents were member of high society, mainly because of his father’s status as an important army officer. Captain Placeholder’s mother is mostly attracted to his father because of his bright future and social status. Captain Placeholder’s father is an honorable man who believes war is a noble pursuit, a way to earn respect in the eyes of other nations through fair contest on the grandest scale. He is a true patriot, but one day he defies his orders and uses his army to try and protect another race from genocide at the hands of another nation. He is defeated and his army is shattered but he succeeds in his aim. He dies of his wounds while in the care of the people he protected. This is traumatic for Captain Placeholder who cannot understand the reason for his father’s betrayal – especially since he never gets to tell his side of the story. His mother commits suicide shortly afterward, unable to handle the shame and loss of social status. Captain Placeholder ends up pursuing a career in a different branch of the military, determined to restore his family’s good name. As a junior officer in the newly established air fleet, he is involved in an accident and has to make a terrible choice: save a comrade from a terrible death or save the airship and everyone on it. He saves the ship and has to live with the guilt, not knowing he made a widow out of a young woman. She grew up as an orphan and left her brother in an abusive situation with a woman he thought he loved to marry the man who dies. She married him to escape her horrific situation and now feels guilty for his death, since he only pursued the commission that ended up killing him in order to impress her. Captain Placeholder and this young woman eventually meet and marry, not knowing the role he had in the death of her last husband. They love each other deeply but her difficult past keeps her from fully committing to the relationship.

    What will the reader have to know? Uh… Probably most of it, but none of this will end up in paragraph form. I will provide background information as the need arises, one nugget at a time, and the picture will not be complete until just before the climax.

    • Wow, very colorful and complex characters with difficult choices. Thanks for a great example!

      • EJ Heijnis

        Thank you! This is the first time I’m starting a project with developing my characters instead of the plot, so I’m happy you think they’re interesting.

  • Scarlet

    Here’s something I pulled out. It probably could be cut further, I think it kind of rambles on. I will work on it later.
    ——
    He peered out into the Wyoming wilderness. He’d been under the star-splattered sky too many nights to count. Most of them he was alone. A few months ago he had gotten a job working for a Mr. Westerberg. He was Steve. Born Steve Boston. But also called Alex. Once he was called James, a few people knew him as Barry. One lonely old lady called
    him Bruce. What was his true identity? Does it even matter? He had been living in the wilderness, as a vagabond, even as a hobo, for thirteen years. Ever since his eighteenth birthday. It was a warm late April night. He had packed up his belongings into his camper’s backpack. Not much, really. A sack of rice, a small rifle, a few books and a whole lot of gumption. Not one member of his family knew why. Not one knew what was really happening in that curious head of his. Perhaps he didn’t either. As he sighs, a trail of breath floats to the sky. It is very cold. The breath turns to tiny ice crystals as it vanishes.
    Why am I here? He asks himself.
    That warm April night he had run. Thought he would be better off on his own. Maybe he was searching for something. He had learned a lot along the way. Be careful who you take a ride from. Do not over cook the rice. Work hard. Cars are not a life necessity. Never trust just anyone. Learn what you can. Be a good friend. Help someone out. Stay away from poison ivy. Enjoy nature.
    Did this fill the gap? The deep emptiness running through his every limb?
    Nothing matters. He tells himself.
    Not computers, cell phones, cars, not even houses.
    Not jobs, money, limousines, a famous name.
    Not a good reputation, not friends, not even people.
    Nothing matters.
    He tries to close his eyes, but he can’t help but feel the
    sting of a rancor that was placed in his heart years ago. His father. That’s who he couldn’t forget.
    That’s why he decided to go live on the land. Go off the grid. Be one with nature.
    Who was he, really?
    He couldn’t remember. He used to be a successful student. Then he was a run-away. Then he was a farmer, working for a guy named Jim. Then he juggled back and forth between living in the Rocky Mountains foraging and hunting what he could, and doing odd ball jobs for cranky old men who cussed and threw fits. He was a charmer, that’s how he was lucky and got jobs. But money wasn’t important to him anymore. He had seen the effects it had on people. He had seen what humans are really made of. He
    saw the greed in their soul. It was dark. He was yet to meet anyone who had
    ever shown him kindness. That’s why he was here. Alone. Not even his family had
    shown him the unconditional genuine love that he longed for. He didn’t think
    anyone would.
    ——

    • I think you revealed too much of this character, unless we needed to know it at that point? He seems to be pretty mysterious, maybe you could be a little bit more like him in your writing revealing little bits of him as you continue through dialog interactions.

      • Scarlet

        You’re right, I think I told too much. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to make this into a short story or a full novel. That’s a good idea, about the dialog interactions. Thanks for the critique! I’ll definitely work on this.

  • Ed Pena

    I am a man of ashes and dust, a child of lust and hate. My name is drifter, vagrant, vagabond, trash. I’ve lived in old refrigerators, eaten meals from cans heated over open wood flames, dressed in hand-me-downs stolen from Salvation Army drop boxes, sheltered in highway rest stops from the cold or sudden rain. I’ve passed through your life a hundred times in a hundred cities; overlooked, ignored, easily forgotten, the flotsam and jetsam of my life washed upon the shores of your vaguely distant memories.

    My Grandmother named me Trinidad Rios after the river I was birthed by. In a one room wood and adobe hovel with dirt floors the Fates began to weave the thread of Me into the tapestry of Life. I never knew my mother, though I’d heard the stories. Of the beautiful thirteen-year-old migrant girl who had blatantly thrown herself at the nineteen year old white son of the rich South Valley Combine rancher. Of the haunted child, pregnant and penniless, who attempted to drown her shame only to end up in a coma. Funny how many of those wanton children there were before that boy was sent off to college in the East. I’m older than her faded picture I carry in my wallet.

    • Ed Pena

      I posted this previously in “writing poetically”. I cut a paragraph for brevity.

  • 709writer

    His eyes slitted open.

    Pain cramped his shoulder and neck. Clutching is shoulder, he opened his eyes fully.

    He was trapped in some kind of glass-walled cylinder. Cracks permeated several portions of the glass.

    He could see a crowd was gathering in a semi-circle around him.

    His vision blurred and his eyes closed reflexively. Something was wrong. He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here. Why he was shut inside this prison. He swallowed. Even his own identity was clouded.

    Shadow.

    He gasped. That was his name.

    Maria.

    That name made his heart ache. Why? Who was she?

    His breaths came faster. He had to get out of this glass prison. Cocking his fist, he whammed it into the closest spiderweb of cracks. When nothing happened, he drew his fist back and punched the wall again with all his power.

    I’d love critique on this. : )

    • EndlessExposition

      Very good! I’ve been following your posts on this story with interest. Keep going with it, it’s very intriguing.

      • 709writer

        Wow, that is a huge compliment. Thank you very much for your support. : )

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  • I actually had to cut out the entire first half of my story! It was really hard to do, but in the back of my head, I always knew where the story had to start. I had made a step outline for a screenplay & the same place that started was where my character started on pg. 1 (not counting the prologue). In fact, I actually cur out a scene from the step outline even. It was hard but I figure if this book sells, then maybe I can write the prequel!

  • Joye Johnson

    You don’t have to mercilessly slay those lovely paragraphs. Let us take a page from our storytelling brethren: deleted scenes! J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion but knew better than to clutter The Hobbit with all that backstory. Once you get the reader’s interest, they will want the elaborations. Until then, we must get to the point.

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