Backstory: the story begins

This entry is part 1 of 20 in the series Backstory

Today is the day: we finally begin our series on backstory!

Backstory is the events that happened before your story starts. Your characters need backstory—but your story may not.

Our characters do need backstory—they need to have come from somewhere, have had experiences that shaped their outlook, attitudes, personalities, and reactions. Backstory rounds out a character, helps us to make their actions consistent and explains their motivations. Thus, backstory can and should be a huge tool for characterization and creating well-rounded characters.

But does your story need backstory included in its pages? The answer is probably yes—but the general rule is that to actually stop the story to play all that out as little and infrequently as possible.

Most of the time, backstory does influence the plot directly: at least part of the important events of a story come before the actual “start” of the story. Take Hamlet, for example: before the play starts, the story events are already in motion—his father is already murdered, and his uncle has already married his mother.

The backstory that creates the opening circumstances may be explained fairly quickly—but some of the backstory may not be revealed until the climax (such as the identity of the murderer) or the resolution (the hero[ine] explains why s/he acts in a certain way—though that may not be the best example. Readers get frustrated with inexplicable actions as much as characters do, so if it’s a POV character, we’d want to explore that a little more).

Coming up: how to tell story from backstory (i.e. knowing when to start your story), avoiding infodumps, using backstory to shape your characters, and a guest post by one of my favorite writing instructors, Margie Lawson!

What do you think? How do you define and use backstory?

Photo by Angela Shupe

The “right” kind of backstory

This entry is part 2 of 20 in the series Backstory

Lots of books—especially, it seems, those of a more literary bent—focus on revealing backstory as unlocking a key in a mystery, whether it be finally understanding another person to the character finally discovering the truth about his/her own life. How is that different from “bad” backstory?

The answer may vary, but to me “bad” backstory is a.) delivered up-front in a chunk and/or b.) supposed to totally explain why the characters (especially bad guys and fractured protagonists) are the way they are, and thus justify their poor choices.

“Good” backstory, on the other hand, often isn’t something the main character knows yet. The main character is searching for the rest of the story right along with us. If a POV character does know the whole story, s/he should have a reason to hide that from the other characters and the reader, instead of just withholding for withholding’s sake.

This backstory must also be something worth waiting for. The premise of the novel rests on this character’s search for the truth—so that truth had better be worth reading the whole thing for. Trick endings might sell one book, but betrayed readers might be turned off forever.

But most important, perhaps, is what the backstory does. No matter what the specific events of the past or present in the book, discovering the truth should reveal some truth about the present story. It should help the character—and hopefully the reader—make sense of the world, and inform the character in some way greater than just the facts do.

That is, after all, the point of studying history, whether global or personal. We’re trying to understand where we fit in, what came before, and how that can guide us better. We want to know what we believe or feel or know has always been true. We want to know what truth is. And it’s not only the point of studying history—it can be the point of reading fiction, too.

What do you think? What defines the “right” kind of backstory?

Photo by Clever Cupcakes

Where to start

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series Backstory

Knowing where to start a story (or even a scene) is a fine art. Too early and we bore the reader. Too late and we confuse the reader (and then have to wedge in that much more backstory later). With backstory, the central issue is usually starting too early—we know these events will influence the story, but we still don’t want to start before the story “really” does. So how can we tell which events are backstory and which are story-story?

Two ways I can think of are focusing on:

  1. who our story is about (the protagonist) and
  2. what our story is about (the theme or the central events).

Take Hamlet, for example: when the play starts, the story events are already in motion—his father is already murdered, and his uncle has already married his mother. But Hamlet’s story doesn’t start until his father’s ghost appears to call for vengeance, and that’s where we join him.

Now, we could have started out watching Claudius plot and eventually murder Hamlet Sr., and marry Gertrude to assume the throne. But Shakespeare’s story wasn’t ultimately about the betrayal of family—it was about the consequences of inaction. Hamlet was his protagonist. (And that kinda made Shakespeare’s choice easy, since he needed Hamlet off at school when his dad was killed.)

Author Chris Roerden offers some more advice on where to find the beginning:

It’s where the first sign of trouble appears.It’s where a change threatens to upset the status quo. Mystery author and literary agent Jack Bickham says, “Nothing is more threatening than change. . . . Identify the moment of change, and you know when your story must open” (The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, 11-2; from Don’t Murder Your Mystery, 54).

Naturally, the backstory will set up the opening situation, as it does for Hamlet. Usually, at least some of those circumstances of the story created by the backstory should be quickly explained. We’d be awfully confused if it took a quarter of Hamlet’s story to discover that his dad is dead and his mother has already remarried. Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to explain everything in the opening lines. Backstory is more powerful when we save it as long as possible.

What do you think? How do you choose when to start your story?

Photo by Tom Magliery

Jump into the action

This entry is part 4 of 20 in the series Backstory

Once you’ve settled on the who and the what, the when might still need a little fine tuning. In Revision And Self-Editing, James Scott Bell gives a great rule of thumb: “act first, explain later” (132). Start with action—a character doing something—and explain only what’s absolutely necessary, and even then, wait as long as possible.

There are other advantages to this approach, too. The primary advantage is that it piques the reader’s curiosity. This hearkens back to our series on tension and suspense, where one technique to increase tension within a scene is to start the scene with a bang.

One great way to create tension is not to explain these actions—at first. The reader is taken aback by this interesting or inexplicable action—and they’re eager to not only find out what happens next, but to learn why this is happening now.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision And Self-Editing, you can “marble in” this sequel information through the beginning of the scene.

This works on a story-level as well as the scene-level when used in the opening.

When done well, opening with action also helps to anchor us in the POV character’s head far better than, say, starting with their thoughts off in space could. Rather than thinking about the backstory, the character should be acting based on the backstory. Then slipping in that information will be natural.

In Don’t Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden distinguishes between “backstory,” the events that take place before a story starts, and “background,” which supplies information that was or still is true. To use yesterday’s example, Hamlet’s father being dead and his mother marrying his uncle are part of the background. By Chris’s definition, then, we want to get the background in so the story makes sense, but not so much we slow the story down—a classic problem of backstory.

Tomorrow we have a guest post from the magnificent Margie Lawson with more about managing backstory!

What do you think? What kind of action do you start with?

Photo by Horia Varlan

Winning Back Story: Not an Oxymoron (Guest post from Margie Lawson)

This entry is part 5 of 20 in the series Backstory

By Margie Lawson

Note from Jordan: Margie was the instructor of the class the best writing class I’ve ever taken, so I’m very excited she’s with us today!

Note: Margie is participating in Brenda Novak’s Diabetes Auction, including:


Check out the end of the post to learn more. Also, she runs a cartoon Dare Devil Dachshund Contest on her web site. You could win one hour of her Deep Editing brain. More info at

A HUGE THANK YOU to Jordan for inviting me to be her guest today!

Winning Back Story: Not an Oxymoron

By Margie Lawson

You can write back story that makes me smile.

You can write back story that earns the coveted Margie margin note, NYT.

You can write back story that boosts your novel onto bestseller lists.

Or you can write back story that invites me to skim.

Are you in?

What is back story? It’s history. It’s the events that led up to your story before the story opens. Often, motivation for your POV character’s decisions and actions are in the back story.

Sometimes back story is stagnant. Flat. Boring. Readers lose interest in the book and put it down.

AACK! You want to write an unputdownable novel.

The best way to include the absolutely required back story and keep your novel fast-paced, is to sprinkle it in your story. With my EDITS System, back story will jump out at you in big puddles of YELLOW. Too much back story grinds your story to a halt. CLICHÉ ALERT!

BIGGER CLICHÉ ALERT: Too much back story grinds your story to a screeching halt.

When you review a scene, analyze the back story. Ask yourself if the reader needs to have that information now. Or – if they need that information.

Managing back story is tricky. Writers always think the reader needs all the history the writer created in his/her mind. Not true. The reader only needs what they need to buy the story.

This fact is usually disappointing to the writer. They want to share every amazingly cool detail they created.

One rule of thumb for managing back story (cliché alert) is to withhold back story until after chapter three. Those writers hypothesize that by then, your reader is hooked on your story and will tolerate some chunks of back story. Some authors hold off back story in the first few chapters then start feeding the readers chunks of back story. Sometimes pages of back story.

Not my favorite plan.

Some authors dump info-dumps in Chapters 1, 2 and/or 3.

Not my favorite plan either.

Mark Sullivan (mystery/suspense/thriller writer) has a great plan for back story management. Here’s his plan—which happens to be my first choice.

He suggests writing down what you think the reader needs to know. Write several pages of back story. Not to be used in your book, but for your own benefit.

Grab a red pen – and go through your back story points and circle what the reader absolutely has to know. What they absolutely need to know. Let go of things that you thought were important but don’t need to include. Just because you think it is interesting doesn’t mean the reader ABSOLUTELY NEEDS TO KNOW IT.

Next, take those points you circled, that the reader absolutely needs to know, and picture them etched on a sheet of glass. Got it?

You’re imagining those points imprinted on a rectangle of glass. Imagine carrying that sheet of glass to a brick patio. Imagine standing on a brick patio, holding that sheet of glass.


Drop that sheet of glass.

Watch it shatter.

Imagine picking up one narrow shard of glass at a time – and slipping each sliver of back story in your first 100 pages. Repeat. You insert one sliver of back story in those first 100 pages, one piece of back story at a time.

Slip shards of back story in dialogue or share it in a quick interactive way. You’ve got the first 100 pages of your book to fit in each sliver of back story.

No info-dumps.

You’ll be so good at slipping in back story that you’ll have a smooth fast-paced read.

When I heard Mark Sullivan share this visual, it resonated with me. Great visual. Great plan.

You may believe your genre or story or style need more back story as set up. Okay. You may be right. AND – I bet you can share the back story in a compelling way. Let’s dive into some examples of what works. I used the first example in my April newsletter. It’s so well written, I’m including it here.

Example: From THE WOODS, by Harlan Coben. Prologue, first page, third paragraph:

I have never seen my father cry before—not when his own father died, not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first heard about my sister, Camille.

Analysis: What did Coben accomplish, and how?

He slipped back story into anaphora. He gave the reader four hits of powerful back story in one sentence. Four hits of powerful back story in thirty-three words.

Read it out loud this time:

I have never seen my father cry before—not when his own father died, not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first head about my sister, Camille.

Strong cadence. Informative. Fast-paced. Intriguing. Enticing. No chunk of back story the reader is tempted to skim. Plus – that one sentence introduces story questions. Why is his father crying? Why did his mother run off and leave them? What happened to his sister, Camille?

Example: From STOP ME, by Brenda Novak, Chapter 1:

But Jasmine’s thoughts were so focused on what was in her lap, she couldn’t even raise her hand. She’d made that bracelet as a gift for her little sister. She remembered Kimberly’s delight when she’d unwrapped it on her eighth birthday, her last birthday before the tall man with the beard entered their house in Cleveland one sunny afternoon and took her away.

Look at that smooth passage. In just three sentences, Brenda Novak covered a lot of back story. She showed how seeing her sister’s bracelet impacted Jasmine. She tapped emotion by sharing that the POV character made the bracelet for her little sister. She shows her sister’s joy. She slips in her sister’s age, the city, and that her sister was kidnapped.

The cadence is strong. The words rive the reader through the paragraph.

Example: DIVORCED, DESPERATE, AND DECEIVED, Christie Craig, Chapter 1, page 3:

“Did he bring her with him when he picked up Tommy?” Sue asked.

Kathy wished she could pretend she didn’t understand the question. Wished she’d never told them that Tom had married TOW, “The Other Woman.” But during the last Jack Daniel’s night—at which, quite unfairly, neither Sue nor Lacy could imbibe—Kathy had accidentally spilled her guts. Or at least she’d spilled a bit of them. The big secrets were still in the bag. And they could stay bagged. It would take more than a couple shots of Jack for her to hang out her dirty laundry. Even to her two closest friends.

Christie Craig shares her humor and her talent in this fast-paced addictive romance. This passage is a light read that carries a big hit of mysterious back story. Kathy has secrets, big secrets, that she won’t divulge to her two best friends.

Hmm – makes you want to read more. Right?

When an author finesses back story, it draws you in. Keeps the story moving. Makes the read more compelling.

When an author chunks back story, it stops the action. Stops the story. It may tempt the reader to skim. And when someone is skimming, they’re not engaged in the scene. They’re no longer hooked.

Remember my opening lines?

You can write back story that makes me smile.

You can write back story that earns the coveted Margie margin note, NYT.

You can write back story that boosts your novel onto bestseller lists.

Analyze your writing. Deep edit your scenes. Make your back story carry style and power. Make your back story boost your writing onto a best seller list!

It’s your turn now! Chime in. Share your thoughts on managing back story.

FYI: My next on-line course, DEEP EDITING: The EDITS System, Rhetorical Devices, and More, is offered in MAY. You can read descriptions of my courses (and Lecture Packets) and access links to register for my on-line courses from the home page of my web site.

If an on-line course does not fit your schedule, Lecture Packets ($22) are available through Paypal from my web site.



NYT Bestseller, Brenda Novak, donates an amazing chunk of her life to fundraising for diabetes research. She selflessly gives months of her energy, creativity, and what would have been writing time, family time, self-time to her DIABETES AUCTION.

For writers – it’s a warm-your-heart win-win. Bid on one of the hundreds of items, support diabetes research, and you may win an experience that changes your life.

If you’re not familiar with this auction — it’s a gold mine for writers!

My husband and I love to support the Diabetes Auction. With over 1000 donations, if I don’t mention our donations . . . you might miss them.

Yikes – a Missed Opportunity!

Margie’s Donations:

1. A set of six Lecture Packets

2. A 50 page Triple Pass Deep Edit Critique

3. Registration for a Write At Sea Master Class by Margie Lawson on Deep Editing Power, April, 2011. Donation by Margie Lawson and Julia Hunter.


You select the destination – any place within 600 nautical miles from Denver.

A weekend, you and a friend, plus my pilot-husband flying our four-seater plane, me, a night in a hotel, and a two-hour deep editing consult. The consult is on the ground, not while we’re flying. ;-))

5. Registration for an IMMERSION MASTER CLASS session!

A $450 value . . .

The three-day Immersion Master Class sessions are designed as a personalized, hone-your-manuscript experience focusing on deep editing. The sessions are held in Margie’s log home at the top of a mountain west of Denver. Participants will concentrate on transforming their manuscript into a page-turner. The winner may attend a session in the fall of 2010 (depending on availability), or one of the four sessions offered in 2011.


Thank you. I appreciate your time.

All the Best…………….Margie

About the author
Margie Lawson—psychotherapist, writer, and international presenter—developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques for used by writers, from newbies to NYT Bestsellers. She teaches writers how to edit for psychological power, how to hook the reader viscerally, how to create a page-turner.

Thousands of writers have learned Margie’s psychologically-based deep editing material. In the last five years, she presented over fifty full day Master Classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. For more information on lecture packets, on-line courses, master classes, and the 3-day Immersion Master Class sessions offered in her Colorado mountain-top home, visit:

Backstory: how much is too much?

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the series Backstory

One of the big problems with backstory is stopping the story to fill in the readers. Last summer, for example, I tried to read a book where the author insisted on giving a life history of each character as they were introduced. The histories were between one and three paragraphs, I think, and outlined the characters’ careers, families and attitudes—none of which had any bearing on the present scene. Just for good measure, we even hopped into the heads of characters who weren’t even in the scene for this direct characterization.

I made it to page five.

Too much backstory early on stops the forward progress of the story—and in many cases, it stops the reader, too.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use any backstory. It just means we have to be judicious and quick in how we slip in our backstory. I love the analogy guest blogger and writing instructor extraordinaire Margie Lawson used last week. As she said, borrowing author Mark Sullivan’s analogy:

Slip shards of back story in dialogue or share it in a quick interactive way. You’ve got the first 100 pages of your book to fit in each sliver of back story.

Exactly how big is a shard? Author Chris Roerden says it’s pretty small:

Once readers become invested in the main character’s problem, you can insinuate backstory via one or two sentences. You don’t want to satisfy reader curiosity—you want to increase it. Several chapters later, after your readers are committed to finding out what happens next, you can offer a paragraph or two of backstory. Be selective. (Don’t Murder Your Mystery, 53)

That’s some loaded advice. First, Roerden establishes that we have to establish sympathy with our characters before we go interrupting the present story with their past. Then note the word “insinuate.” It doesn’t just mean imply—the primary definition is “To introduce or otherwise convey (a thought, for example) gradually and insidiously.”

It seems like much of the time, we slip in that backstory to answer questions we anticipate in our readers. Instead, Roerden points out, we should use backstory to build that curiosity and compel them to read on.

On rare occasions, answering questions can be valuable—if a situation (or character action) is so strange or objectionable on its face that the reader is more likely to be repulsed (or just confused) than interested, we should give a quick explanation.

This is often not what Roerden calls backstory—it’s “background” information. To use our Hamlet example, Shakespeare’s readers/viewers would be pretty darn confused if Hamlet’s mom is married, but there’s all this discussion of his dead dad and his uncle and something . . . Huh?

But even when providing background, it’s best to do it quickly and judiciously—and to involve the characters as we do it. More on that coming up!

What do you think? How much backstory do you put in at the beginning? Do you add more at a time as your story progresses?

Photo by Jon Ross

Backstory through narration

This entry is part 7 of 20 in the series Backstory

For the most part, the primary way we see backstory is in narration—and this can be the trickiest mode of exposition of all. One of the biggest dangers here is getting into info dump territory: supplying all the information and context and life stories of everyone involved. Hopefully, when we’re using only “shards of backstory,” and only what’s absolutely necessary, that’s less of a problem—but sometimes it’s still tough to make sure that backstory remains interesting.

Being quick about it is especially important. Even if backstory is informing the current story, it still slows the current reader. As Theresa Stevens, editor, says (emphasis added):

Give the reader just enough to allow them to comprehend how the past event is linked to the current event. Use a minimal number of words, and return to the story timeline as quickly as possible. The story, after all, is what keeps the reader turning pages.

The story—the real story, the present action—is a great way to give any important backstory significance and relevance. Back in our series on tension and suspense, I pointed out a Mystery Man column at the Story Department about this kind of necessary exposition. Mystery Man says (emphasis added):

Great exposition is always in the context of something else. A scene should never be about exposition only. You should feed the exposition in the context of some other scenario that’s going on in the scene whether its poisoned food that’s eaten by a bad secret agent monkey or whether it’s something else interesting going on between the characters, such as a contest of wills, a budding love story, or perhaps exposition that’s being told to a secretly bad character who will use that information against the protagonists.

Backstory is best dispersed not just in small bursts, but in small bursts at the moment you need it—”in the context of some other scenario that’s going on in the scene.”

The theory I’ve heard is generally to wait as long as you can, and then reveal to the reader (or the characters) the rest of the story (RIP, Paul Harvey). The right moment is, of course, the one where the revelation will have the greatest impact.

Say, for example, the hero and heroine are arguing. The content of the argument seems silly to the reader—where to put an orange chair, let’s say. She votes for a.) the dump, or b.) the corner, under this lovely slipcover. He votes for a.) what’s the matter with my chair?, and b.) how dare you move it?, even though he’s already said how much he hates that orange chair. The reader and the heroine are mystified. The hero says mean and nasty things; the heroine runs away.

Then—the moment of greatest impact—we get one sentence of his thoughts—that heroine just wants to control him, like his mother did. Not two pages of sequel where he explains exactly how his mother always made him feel and how she treated him and on and on. Here, the information is revealed in the context of conflict, quickly, and at the moment when the reader needs it.

Naturally, my example is terrible, and there are lots of other ways to handle that particular scenario, but the point here is the timing.

What do you think? How do you determine when to reveal backstory? How do you do it in narration?

Photo by Phil Ladouceur

Backstory through dialogue

This entry is part 8 of 20 in the series Backstory

Dialogue can be one of the most effective ways to slip backstory into your work—but as always, there are some major, common pitfalls to avoid in conveying backstory information in dialogue. For example, as you know, gentle reader, we want to avoid “As you know, Bob” dialogue. If both the characters already know something, why would they inform one another of those facts?

Inserting a character who doesn’t already know the situation can work—but it can also backfire if it’s obvious that character is there mainly as a plot device so the author can info dump. It also leads into what may be the biggest problem with using dialogue to convey backstory—it’s still boring. Even if it’s a secret baby or rich uncle or life as a courtesan, sometimes it’s just not interesting.

Why is it boring? There’s no conflict. Sometimes it’s easy to find the conflict: the heroine calls the hero by her abusive ex’s name in the middle of an argument; if the hero finds out about his brother’s secret baby, he’ll flip, etc. But it’s not always that easy.

In Don’t Murder Your Mystery, author Chris Roerden offers a bunch of techniques for binging out, adding or just simulating conflict in dialogue, including bypass dialogue, borrowed conflict, simulated disagreement and flat-out editing (179-184). (I posted about these techniques during the tension & suspense series, too.)

Of course, the answer may also be simpler: if there’s no conflict to this backstory here, is this the right place to put it? Are these the right characters to be discussing it? If you change/add/subtract characters, does it change the dynamic?

And, as always, good dialogue technique is important. One character delivering a monologue about his or her life history isn’t any different than a regular info dump in narration. Interruptions, reticence and context (and subtext!) can add to not only the conflict, but the meaning of the words your characters are saying—and may require less jabbering to for the same impact.

What do you think? How do you reveal backstory through dialogue?

Photo by Beppie