Wednesday, November 18, 2020

5 Ways to Find the Backstory Readers Want to Know

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Readers don’t mind backstory—as long as it’s something they want to hear about.

The first novel I ever wrote was fantasy, so naturally, it had a lot of backstory. Every character had huge histories and shady pasts, and I couldn’t wait to share every last detail with my readers.

And it turned out about how you’d imagine.

Boring pages, no action, flashbacks that nobody but me cared about. It was a mess.

A person’s past is part of life, and everybody has one—especially fictional characters. But that past isn't always relevant, even if it is interesting. Stopping to explain a character's history tends to bog a novel down.

Too much backstory is also high of the list of why an agent rejects a manuscript, and many advise cutting all backstory from the first 50 pages.

A bit extreme, sure, but more times than not, the backstory hurts rather than helps a story. But with a little forethought and revision, (okay, sometimes a lot of revision) you can make your backstory flow seamlessly with the rest of your prose.

The right amount of backstory can make readers fall in love with your characters.

Problem is, the wrong amount can send readers running, because they don’t want to know all this information. It gets in the way of the story, drags down the plot, and even gives away the very reasons want to read the novel.

Here are five ways to determine what backstory readers want to know:

1. Read your character’s diary.

Figuratively speaking. Think about what the character might write if they kept a diary or journal. The diary tells you what’s really on their minds and what they’re thinking about right now. That way, you aren’t tempted to throw in everything you know about them into the story as soon as it opens.

How many times during your day do you think about your past out of the blue? Or bring up painful topics you’re trying hard to avoid? Odds are not very often, but bad backstory has characters doing it all the time.

The diary trick helps avoid this. You’ll understand what that character would truly think about and share at that moment. You’ll be able to see life as they do and include only what’s relevant to that scene. Unless something happened to trigger that memory, they're more likely to go about their day doing what they do.

(Here’s more on Why Ask Why? Because Your Readers Will) 

2. Follow the “When I want your opinion I’ll ask for it” rule.

Readers don't want to know everything about a character's past right away—especially when it gives away the story. Tell them too much too soon, and there's nothing for them to discover as the story unfolds. That equals a boring novel, and who wants that?

Readers want to be surprised. They want to wonder why, for example, your protagonist is scared of bright sunlight (when he's clearly not a vampire, of course). The mystery helps hook them and keeps them reading to find out. Don’t share those tidbits until readers are begging for then.

(Here’s more on Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?) 

3. Hide it around the house.

Backgrounding is a great way to deal with backstory. You might want to tell readers about the terrible past of your protagonist, or how he spent nine years underground in a Boramese prison, but instead of blurting it out (or worse, shoving in it somewhere it doesn't really fit), think of the things that might have affected your protagonist because of that experience.
  • How might that change his behavior in the scene? 
  • Is he extra sensitive to the light?
  • Claustrophobic?
  • Very good at getting around when he can't see well?
By backgrounding your backstory, you can drop clues about your characters and show their history without stopping the story to explain it. Better still, you leave enough tantalizing hints that readers eventually want to know the whole story.

4. Have some compassion for the poor dear.

Backstory isn't just about the character's history—it's about the experiences that shaped their life and make them act the way they do. Some of it is probably painful, and not information they’d want you sharing with total strangers.

Be choosy about the secrets you tell. Any backstory that influences motivation is a natural fit, because that past is actively affecting how the character behaves in the current story. That past is driving them to act, not just “terrible events in their past.” Pick what's important both to the character and to the story itself.

5. Mine their emotional pain.

Of course, sometimes we want to tear open their emotional wounds and pass them around for our entertainment (that’s just good writing). The worst days of a character’s life are probably the very things that are going to make resolving the novel’s problem that much harder to do.

They’re also the moments that can make readers connect to the character, and sympathize with them. They’ll emotionally invest in both story and character, and care what happens.

Bonus Tips: To determine what backstory to use, ask:

How does it affect the current scene goal? This can help you decide what aspects of your backstory to reveal to your readers. The bits that actually matter, not the full history that doesn't advance the story.

Were any of the scene's characters involved? If so, what was their role? How do they feel about it now? How does it motivate their actions and choices now? If they're not playing a role in the scene, why add backstory about them?

How does the point of view character feel about it? If your point of view character wasn't involved (or didn't know about it) odds are they're trying to figure it out in some way. That might even be the goal of the book or a subplot. What do they know? What do they think they know, but have wrong? What parts are they trying to solve? What might they uncover unexpectedly?

One last bonus tip: Ignore backstory during the first draft. Stick to the story at hand, and after it's done, go back and read your scenes. Ask yourself: Does it make sense as is, or is more information needed to understand what's going on in that scene? This is key. It might be good information, or important information, but if it doesn't help that scene, save it for later. You don't have to tell it all at once.

On the flip side, you can also add as much backstory as you want so you understand it all, and trim it down later. Sometimes you need to write out a character’s past to figure them out, and you don’t truly know them until you do.

Backstory can be a vital part of your novel—if you make it serve the story and the character.

Backstory gets a bad rap, but when you think about it, it's the motivating factor behind your characters, and characters are what drives your story. That backstory helps you create rich and proactive characters.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Think about your characters and why they behave the way they do in the novel. Do their actions come from real motivations created by past experiences, or are they just doing what the plot says they should? If you find weak motivations, add some backstory to the character and flesh them out so their motives come from a real place. Then decide how much (if any) of that backstory needs to go into the novel.

How much backstory do you write in a first draft? Do you figure it out as you go along, or plan it beforehand?

*Originally published March 2012. Last updated November 2020.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Excellent post!

    I try to let backstory crop up naturally. Let the characters disclose the info if they choose to in the first draft. Second and third times round I try to refine the backstory so that it's there but doesn't interfere too much with the present.

  2. This is the best post on backstory I've read in a loong time. Thanks for taking the time to really dive into what it means and how to make it necessary.

    I DO write backstory while I'm working on the first draft. In fact, many times, I write backstory before I work on the story itself.

    Perhaps I should just write the story and see where it leads? I could be just as surprised as my readers :D


  3. Great post Janice. I don't write that much backstory in my stories. Maybe a thought if it's driving what's going on now. My problem is more not info dumping or doing it in an interested and quick way.

  4. Xan, sounds like a good process to me. A lot of mine shows up that way. I find out about when the character shares it.

    Jen, aw, thanks! If that process works for you, why change it? Everyone is different, and if you prefer to really know the past before you dive into the present, there's nothing wrong with that. Of course, you can always try it the other way just to see what happens :) You might find you like it, or find an in between style that's perfect for you.

    Natalie, a lot of the same principles apply with infodumps, actually. It's still explaining info (and often past or established info)that may or may not fit the scene. Maybe you're subconsciously using them like notes to yourself, and you're figuring out what info needs to go where? Once you know all the facts, you can revise and write them in more smoothly :)

  5. I have TONS of backstory in the first (and second and third) draft. As I whittle it down, I find myself dragging bits off to other parts of the story where it is more natural to explain. A lot of time, after the story has been written all the way out, I find that I can just take out a lot of it. But I do it over the course of several(!) edits. And I put them in a separate document for all the stuff I've taken out, just in case I need it back.

    I have to think of it like surgery, removing what shouldn't be there and later kinda like liposuction, to make a leaner, better performing novel.

    I love a book that lures me in with half told stories. I want to figure it out and see if I'm right. I love it when I "got it" a few pages before the reveal.

  6. Great post! It showed me that I was adding a lot of backstory and ruining the reader's opportunity to want to learn more about my character. I now have a few ideas where to include the backstory in other parts of the story. Time to edit.

  7. This is so smart. I never to leave out the back story at first, but it fits in perfectly with my process for writing a first draft. (Just get it down, fill in more details later.)

  8. Great post! I end up with a lot of back-story in my first draft, but that's because I'm a panster and backstory is how I work my way into my characters. I also end up with a lot of kitchen sinks that I have to weed out. :)

  9. You must be reading my journal. How else would you always know the craft point I needed??? Seriously, I have trouble with this issue. I cringe when I look at some of my drafts. I like the rule of thumb: leave it out in the first draft.

  10. I'd have to say the first draft usually gets a lot of info dump with backstory. But as you mentioned, as I go along in the revision, edit, wash and repeat process, I work towards getting the backstory in where it seems fitting or weave it in by bits and pieces.

  11. I'm learning less is more. I've been cutting, cutting,cutting backstory in my wips lately. Just a few whispers here and there seem to be all that's needed for the reader to fill in the blanks.

  12. I do extensive back story planning as part of story prep. In many cases, this is where I find the story threads - it is also helpful in choosing plot points, developments, theme, etc. However, I don't include any more then hints to this in the first draft and bring in whatever needs to be shown or told in the revision process. The back story is more for me through most of the writing process.

    Great post, Janice.

  13. I love the idea of not putting any backstory into the first draft! (Slaps forehead with palm of hand)
    That will be a great time saver. Makes more sense to get the plot and characters set, and then put in backstory where needed.

    It's easy for us struggling writers to forget that we don't need to put every bit of information we've created about our characters into the story. That backstory knowledge will help us write dialogue and inner thoughts for each character even if we don't put the backstory into the manuscript.


  14. Amelia, I love those gotcha moments. And those "ooo I wonder if..." ones.

    Boyish Booklover, awesome! Love when a post sparks the muse.

    Irene, sounds good!

    Chicory, I can totally see a pantser having more. Outliners probably work a lot of that out in the planning.

    LinWash, I have gnomes who do that for me (evil grin).

    Angela, that seems to be a popular style, and it does work. I think the "leave it out and out it back in" and the "put in all in and weed it out layer" are the two most common processes.

    Traci, it's shocking how little they actually need. Just think about the books you read. How often do we really think about non-plot stuff?

    Gene, for some stories that can really help. I had to do that in my current WIP since the backstory is critical to the actually story.

    Chris, it's easy for established writers to do that too, LOL. I like not always knowing the backstory because I'll uncover a detail later in the story and can go back and change a character's history on the fly. No rewrites, just make a few notes and move on.

  15. Being an actor helps when trying to think about backstory, especially with how it will affect the characters' actions and when they would choose to drop hints and reveal things. If they're going to explain their entire lives in one sitting, they'd better have a darn good reason to do so and nowhere else they'd rather be...

  16. Laura, seems like there's a lot of overlap between acting and writing. But I guess both are creating characters, so it makes sense.

  17. Yet another excellent post. Sometimes I have trouble with this...I have my characters thinking of things in a rather non-organic way. It serves the plot more than being a natural thing they'd think. Thanks for the reminder!!

  18. I'm just wondering, what do you do when people find you just too vague in parts, and finding a balance seems impossible?

    Lately a lot of eta-readers I've shown my stories to often comment with things like "Show this more" or "I want more on what X character looks like" and so much of this kind of feedback feels the opposite of what we're trying to avoid so we don't bore the readers we're trying to reach.

    As much as no one wants to read info dumps, how can you show in ways that actually matter without slowing the plot down?

    Because I just struggle with that, and I frankly think that writers of fantasy have a harder time of this, because we don't have "real life" things to source, as much as we're trying to use "elements of life" to give readers the reason to make a leap.

    How can you be open-ended without being so vague no one gets the faintest idea of what you're talking about?

  19. Helpful tips! I was just critiquing a friends work and suggested she delete almost three chapters because of this. Ouch. But sometimes it really does help.

  20. Carol, when that happens, sometimes you can find some detail to slip that that can work as a trigger. I've found memory works well here. A sound, a smell, a word, something little triggers that random thought and lets them piece it all together to whatever you need them to realize.

    Taurean, if your betas are asking for it, give it to them. (if it's just one, and no one else has an issue, then it could just be them. Use your instincts there) Sometimes it doesn't take much to fix a clarity issue. "Need more X" might mean a line or two, not a whole page of information.

    Keeping it in the character's voice also helps make it feel less info-dumpy. It's how they see it, not how you know it is. If they have a reason, even a small one, to think about that info at that time, even better.

    And remember, infodumps in small doses are often okay. If you need to explain a critical part of how something works, look for a reason why your POV wants/needs to know and just explain it.

    You don't need to be open-ended and vague, you just want to avoid sounding as though you're pulling the reader aside to explain something about the story.

    Tiana, it does. I've gutted novels because I needed to write the infodump parts in order to understand how it all fit. It happens, but I just chalk it up to brainstorming on paper :)

  21. I had about 15 pages exploring something that happened in my MC's past when she was a baby. An editor told me to cut that. I initially resisted, but finally relented and hit the Delete button.

    It was AMAZING how useful it was to do that. It allowed future conversations to feel more genuine because the reader didn't know that information already. It allowed me to sprinkle in motivation and characterization in bits throughout the rest of the story because *I* knew what happened to these characters and could use that to make them interesting and real.

    Baby NEEDS backstory, but the pages don't need the answer to every question when it is raised. Dole out answers slowly, and backstory can provide some of those answers. The reader will thank you for it!

  22. I get random Ideas and just start writing. I don't know at the time if it will even be in the story, I just write. Then I stop, think about that character, and I write in a journal all about them. Who are their parents, where are they from, what was their most embarrassing moment...stuff I know about myself and would want to know about the character. Then it is out of my system, I can sit down and just write, and then add stuff from my journal as I go if it's neccessary. It helps me to get in touch with my character without bogging down my writing.

    1. I wish it was that way for me. This cool idea for a story comes to mind & I write that. The best characters, & their back stories for that story come to mind later. Your way seems to easy. That way, when a story comes to mind, just look at my journal & pick someone to modify & fill in.

  23. Courtney, that's awesome that you were brave enough to cut it (and that it worked so well). Sometimes we do need to write it before we cam kill it.

    Jason, I've heard character journals can be great ways to get to know a character but have never tried it myself. I imagine it's freeing to just write and not have to worry about plot or other things.

  24. This is so helpful! I have trimmed down most of my backstory, but it still feels like I'm crammin' too much down my readers' throats. THANK YOU for your excellent blog. You are an inspiration and a great help. Hope the holidays were happy!

  25. Caitlin, happy to help :) Thanks, I had a wonderful holiday, and hope yours was great, too.

  26. OK, I need some help in this area. I'm writing a middle-grades fantasy novel and right now, my setup looks like this:

    Part 1: First person, protagonist voice, he meets mysterious character and experiences her world
    Part 2: First person, mysterious character's voice, she explains her story and why our protagonist should help her
    Part 3: First person, protagonist voice, he finds out mysterious character is not what she seems and must defeat her

    Is this a horrible idea? Part 2 is almost like a nested story, and gives the reader insight into the mysterious character and her world. She drives most of the action in Part 1 and is extremely important to the protagonist believes her to be a love interest, but she turns out to be much more complex.

    1. Without knowing anything beyond what you've said here, I'd have to say that part two looks like all backstory and not something the reader would be interested in as a large chunk of the novel. I say this based on the "explains her story and why the protagonist should help her" comment. This isn't story, it's explanation.

      It also tells readers everything they need to know, so by the time they get to part three, there's no mystery anymore. The need to know answers and see what happens next is what drives readers to keep reading.

      You might look at ways you can have the protagonist discover the information from part two on his own and let that drive the action of the book. That way, he remains the protagonist trying to solve a problem and uncovering new things and solving new problems.

  27. Thank you for an interesting and helpful post. I now need to go and look at my 2 wip to make sure I've not written too much backstory (or not enough).