Adding Backstory to Your Novel

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Backstory. We hear that word a lot as writers. So just what is backstory?

In a few words, it’s your characters’ history. Something that happened to them in the past that shapes their present state of being, but that doesn’t directly relate to the story you are telling. Backstory is a tricky thing. It’s necessary in many ways because it provides such in depth detail on your character. At the same time, if not properly told, it can be boring, because it isn’t immediate. So how can you add backstory to your novel without boring your readers to tears? Here are just a few methods:

  • Putting Backstory in a Prologue

A prologue immediately throws backstory out there so the reader understands the character’s motivation from the get go. This should be done sparingly and with caution since, if not done well, it can be viewed as the dreaded “info dump”. Usually you add a prologue if you want to create immediate emotion, such as empathy for a hero who will at first be somewhat unlikeable. If your reader is introduced to the hero as an asshole, she’ll find him difficult to like. But if she knows through a prologue that he’s an asshole because his wife and only child were brutally murdered, the reader is more likely to want to see him redeemed.

  • Introducing Backstory Along the Way

This technique raises questions as the story goes on and allows the reader to guess as to the character’s motivation before being told, piece by piece, what the reasons for his or her actions are. Usually this is done by having one character reveal something to another: the hero confesses his dark past, or the heroine confesses her traumatic childhood.

  • Using Flashbacks

This technique uses memories of the past, usually revealed in several flashes over time. The character “relives” the past event. There should be a good reason for the character having a flashback, usually because of some present event that reminds him or her of the past.

Do you have a favorite technique for getting (or for you writers, giving) backstory?

I think a flashback can be very effective when done well, since it actually forces a character to relive the past incident. It’s a showing rather than a telling. But sprinkling backstory throughout a novel is my personal favorite, because it allows the author to raise question after question, keeping readers hooked to the very end.

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15 thoughts on “Adding Backstory to Your Novel

    kayspringsteen said:
    January 7, 2011 at 9:03 am

    A prologue done right must be very short and very interesting–also needs a hook plus another hook in chapter one. Can be daunting to the writer but effective if done well. I like the slow reveals, often through dialogue/confessions, because they lend themselves to mysteries. But you have to have a reason for the reveal — something comes up that needs explained, since people rarely sit down and start telling their life stories. Flashbacks, as you mentioned, work well if there is a reason for the character to remember, and it’s showing not telling. I think the best thing, especially if the back story might be very detailed is to use a combination of all the methods:
    1. Prologue: Brief mention of the traumatic event without a LOT of details but with enough to hook interest. Then into present day story.
    2. Flashback: Something reminds the character of the past and he/she is thrown into the memory.
    3. Dialogue with third person: “You know he went through a hard time when…”
    4. Dialogue confession: “I’m sorry I’ve been a jerk… here’s why;” Or “Where did you go just now?” “I was remembering…”

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 7, 2011 at 9:16 am

      A combination of the three is a great way to provide an in depth look on a character’s past. I think the trickiest thing is the prologue. It’s just so easy to venture into the info dump territory if one isn’t careful. And you’re right, Chapter One needs to start with another hook, or else you’ve already bored your reader. 🙂

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    January 7, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I’m having an issue right now with a WIP. I began in the present, but when back to the past…not working for me. I think in this case, I’ll have to begin in the past with a few deeper flashbacks to explain the protagonists present circumstances. I actually really like her present – it’s very turbulent, but it’s how she got there that’s important.
    Right now, the WIP contains both – it’s like both threads – past and present – running at the same time and I’m hoping I can pull it all together at the end.

      kayspringsteen said:
      January 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm

      I did this same thing with two people who first met over the radio when he was trapped and she was an emergency worker–for various reasons they didn’t learn one another’s real names, so when they met years later, they didn’t at first recognize one another. I told the story of the previous meeting via short flashbacks that triggered by things that were happening around them. It’s literally two stories in one that come together just at the climax–meaning at the height of the story, they figure it all out then have to face the challenge together. It remains to be seen whether this flies with the editor but beta readers all loved it.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        January 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm

        For some reason this reminds me of Nora Roberts’ book The Reef. It was interesting because she divided her book into sections: The Past, The Present, and the The Future. It’s not often you see a story told this way, but she pulled it off. Hell, she’s Nora; she could pull anything off. 🙂

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    January 7, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Ooops! Meant ‘went back to the past’.

    Ciara Knight said:
    January 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I tend to sprinkle backstory. Never more than a hint here and there.
    Great post.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks, Ciara. Yup, I love the sprinkling. 🙂

    Kristal Lee said:
    January 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Happy New Year, Rosalie!

    I use flashbacks, sometimes as the character thinks back after seeing something that reminded them of a past event and on occasion as a nightmare. I like the dialogue “confession” too. Usually I sprinkle a little bit here and there, enough to give the reader an insight, but not submerse them into the entire backstory.

    As a reader, I’m not a big fan of prologues so I tend to avoid those when writing.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm

      Happy new year, Kristal. 🙂

      I tend to agree with you on prologues. In general not a big fan. Avoid writing them if at all possible.

    Bart Palamaro said:
    January 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Another no-no is the infamous “As you know, Bob…” Nevertheless, I like to reveal backstory in dialog or internals. Seems to me it is more interesting, because it flows and it comes when the reader needs it.

    Great post, Rosalie

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm

      Ah yes, the dreaded “As you know…” I personally think dialogue is great for revealing backstory. It’s my favorite way to do it. 🙂

    Sandy said:
    January 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Rosalie, I have used both the prologue and the epilogue in my stories. I’ve used the flashback, but it was very brief and related to the conversation between two of my characters.

    I never say never. Everything can be done if you know how to, and there is the key, the knowledge to pull it off.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm

      You’ve said it in a nutshell, Sandy. It’s all about being experienced enough to pull it off. 🙂

    click said:
    May 28, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    An insightful blog post right there mate . Thank you for that .

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