Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The 2 Most Common Mistakes Writers Make with Backstory

By Tiffany Reisz, @tiffanyreisz

What is backstory? It’s the story that came before your story. 

If your lead character is a war hero now returned home, his backstory is the war that he fought and the events that led him to becoming a soldier. This can include events of his youth and childhood, previous romances, old wounds, past traumas. Backstory is information from a character’s past that is relevant to the story currently being told. 

Note the use of the word “relevant.”

Backstory done right can add moving and meaningful layers to fiction. Backstory done poorly can weigh down your work with tedious and pointless information.

Below I’ve created examples showing the two most common mistakes writers make with backstory and their easy fixes.

Problem: Backstory Frontloaded
Fix: The Tease

Here’s our book that I just made up—a historical romance novel called BREECHES: A LOVE STORY. Fancy dresses, the British version of line-dancing, women wearing stuff like “stays” and “muslin,” whatever the heck that is—that’s our book. The plot’s simple—the Duke of Earl returned from the war a year ago with a limp. A Princess, trying to avoid an arranged marriage, decides to steal the heart of our wounded war hero duke so she doesn’t have to marry the asshole her dad wants her to. Now let’s see how we can work in the duke’s war wound (which is part of his character but not a plot point) into the story.

How many times have you read a passage like the following in the first chapter of a book? The Duke of Earl is about to see his true love, Princess Pea for the first time.

The Duke walked into the room trying to hide his limp. He noticed a lovely girl sitting at the pianoforte and tried to smile at her through the pain. Blasted limp. He’d taken a bullet last year while fighting for king and country in France. That day he remembered so well, that terrible day. Blood and horses and the shot that came seemingly from nowhere but had in fact, been aimed right at him. He’d never forget that day, that bullet, the man who’d shot him. The wound sent him home so he should have been grateful. But that first year at back had been a nightmare…
Bored yet? I sure as heck am! Number one—does any human being on earth actually think this way? Here we are in the duke’s head and listening in as he recites to himself the entire story of his injury. WHICH HE ALREADY KNOWS. Who does this? He was there. Why is the author telling us all this information? Because the author wants us to know his backstory, but she doesn’t know how to use backstory properly. We’re getting everything interesting about him—a duke gone to war, his loyalty, his bravery, a gun shot, his severe injury that’s left him with a limp and psychological scars—in the first paragraph about him. The mystery of who he is will be solved before we even get to the second chapter. Great. I can put this crappy book down and stop wasting my time.

Let’s try this again without frontloading all the good stuff into the first chapter.

The tease.
The Duke walked into the room trying to hide his limp. Each step hurt but pride compelled him forward. He stopped after the fourth step when the pain became too much. He took a glass of wine from a servant’s tray and drank it in three swallows. Blasted wound. It wouldn’t get the better of him. The bullet took his swagger but that’s all he’d let it take. He’d lost so much in that battle…more than he would ever let anyone know.

Trying to master the pain, he took a deep breath in and out and between the inhalation and the exhalation he heard the tinkling of pianoforte keys. A young woman in a white dress and a face bright as the sun smiled at him from across the room.

Wound? At this moment he felt anything but pain.
Well, what do you know? We have a mystery here—a mystery wound. Who shot him? Where was he when he got shot? It’s cool that the Duke refuses to let the limp keep him from living his life. This Duke’s got spunk. I like spunk. And he likes this chick on the piano too, so much he’s willing to walk over to her even though he’s got a mysterious limp.

Yeah, MYSTERIOUS limp. Now I want to keep reading. This limp story could be juicy, and I need to know what happened.

Problem: Info-dumping
Fix: Dialogue

It’s about halfway through our book, which means our hero and heroine are about to get it on (seriously, sex at the halfway point in a book is so common it’s known as “Sex at Sixty” in Hollywood—ie, sex at the 60 page mark of a 120 page screenplay). Getting physically naked is a great chance for characters to get emotionally naked. So let’s get our lovers naked and find out about this mysterious limp.

Many writers make the mistake of putting backstory in the narrative of their book. Sometimes it must be done and sometimes it works. But in most cases, backstory coming through dialogue is more dramatic than backstory dumped into narrative. Let’s see the difference.

Backstory Info-Dump
The duke held tight to the back of the chair. His new and nervous bride waited for him on the edge of the bed. The time had come. She would see the wound on his thigh. Would she shrink from it? Cry at the sight of it? Spurn him? Surely she would. After all, the wound was a mass of scars from his knee to his hip. The bullet had passed through eight inches of flesh before exiting and taking half the muscle with it. Even with a pound of his flesh on the ground, he’d still managed to kill the man who’d shot him. Even in agony he had perfect aim and had stop that bastard’s heart from beating…But not a French heart. An English heart. The heart of his own brother who’d tried to killed him and disguise the murder as a simply another casualty of war. But the duke had killed his brother and lived. And now his bride would know the terrible truth.
It’s at this point in the book that I usually want to book the couple a session with a therapist who would likely tell them all their problems could be solved if they actually sat down and talked them out. So let’s let our couple talk it out, shall we?

The duke held tight to the back of the chair. His new and nervous bride waited for him on the edge of the bed. The time had come. No more delays, no more secrets.

He limped to the side of the bed and stood in front of her. Princess Pea opened her mouth but the Duke of Earl raised his hand.

“I have to speak first,” he said, “Or I won’t speak at all. You may have noticed I have a limp.”

“A slight one, yes,” she said and he loved her even more for her gift of understatement.

“You should know the truth. I was shot in the war.”

“I had heard those rumors. They say you’re a hero.”

“Hero? Me?” he scoffed. “What hero kills his own brother?”

Her eyes widened and she softly gasped.

“You killed your brother?” she whispered.

“Yes,” said the duke. “Because he did this to me.”

The duke removed his trousers and stood naked in front of his new bride.
You tell me—which of these passages is more dramatic? The first passage where the secret—his brother tried to murder him under cover of battle and our hero killed him in retaliation—is revealed in his head or in his bed?

A man standing and thinking can be dramatic if the writing is fantastic. But a man dropping his pants and telling a shocking war story about ripped-open thighs and fratricide to a scared virgin bride is inherently dramatic. If you can put your backstory into dialogue, do it every time.

The Story on Backstory

The rule of thumb regarding backstory is “Tell it to the reader by telling it to the characters.” Teasing the backstory and incorporating it throughout the story by dropping it into dialogue is a much more natural way to learn about a character than simply dropping a pile of facts into the reader’s lap before she knows the character well enough to care about his or her past.

Also, speaking of dropping, if you can get your hero to drop his pants mid-conversation, that’s also a good idea. But that’s an entirely different blog post.

This book by my friend Ashlyn MacNamara inspired the title Breeches: A Love Story.
Tiffany Reisz is the award-winning and internationally bestselling author of The Original Sinners series (Mira Books). Her characters can often be found dropping their pants but that’s because she writes erotica and it’s expected of them. You can find her on Twitter @tiffanyreisz. Read free Original Sinners stories at


  1. Great examples showing before and after!

  2. Excellent examples! This is great.

  3. I loved this post and I'm honored my delicious cover inspired it.

  4. I work very hard to find a reason to put any backstory in: no motivation for it coming up at this moment, no backstory - that's the rule.

    It goes in so much better if you put a tiny piece here, and a tiny piece there - and then have one character drag the rest of the information out of the other.

    Your examples of how NOT to do it are unfortunately too common - and indicate the writer hasn't mastered some of the basics.

    I did a post recently on handling infodumps ( - after I figured out a particular scene.

  5. Liebjabberings - I use backstory all the time with my characters because I'm writing a series. I hint at one thing in one book and it becomes a plot point in another book. I think backstory can be very useful in creating 3D characters. We all have pasts and to pretend your characters don't have pasts makes for very flat 2D characterization. But yes, less is best. But I would never say "no backstory."


  6. This was great :) Also, that line in your bio is hilarious!

    I don't tend to have too much trouble with character backstory; it's world backstory/worldbuilding that makes more trouble for me. They aren't the same, but they have a lot of the same problems you get with backstory. It's very hard to introduce new places without infodumping. Right now, what I try to do is use the characters, like you said -- has one of them visited the place before? What are their thoughts? Can they talk about it? It doesn't always seem like the best way to do things, though...any tips?

    I'll be referring to this post as I work through this problem. Thanks again. :)

  7. What timing - I was about to start tackling an awkward bit of infodump in my edits today. Thanks for the great ideas! (I don't think I can work in any pants-dropping, but you never know...)

  8. Thanks so much. Your examples are great. And I have to weave in backstory so this really will help me.

  9. Ahh, thank you for this! Keeping info dumps out of the head is my big problem with my WIP, because it's first person.

    You, ma'am, are funny. Always. I love your examples and your guest posts!

  10. Awesome! Thank you! That's actually very informative. :D

  11. Great post with examples, thanks!

  12. Hi Janice and Tiffany,
    The way you explained back story made it seem so simple, though I know it's not. Keeping this post for reference. Thank you! :-)

  13. Great post! Thanks so much! :)

  14. " But a man dropping his pants and telling a shocking war story about ripped-open thighs and fratricide to a scared virgin bride is inherently dramatic."

    LOL! I obviously need to have my heroes drop and declaim more often!