Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Easy Tips to Incorporate Backstory into Your Novel

By Jenna Harte

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Backstory helps readers understand a character, but too much of it can turn readers off. Jenna Harte shares tips on adding the right details to show the past and not bog down the present. 

Jenna Harte is a die-hard romantic writing about characters who are passionate about and committed to each other, and frequently getting into trouble. She is the author of the Valentine Mysteries, the first of which, Deadly Valentine, reached the quarter-finals in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award in 2013. She has a contemporary romance series, Southern Heat, and a cozy mystery series, Sophie Parker Coupon Mystery Series

Romance authors can join her free writing community for support, accountability and more at WritewithHarte. Jenna loves talking to anyone and everyone about romance fiction. You can join her free romance fiction reader community, SwoonworthyHEA to talk romance with other readers.

Take it away Jenna...

Jenna Harte

One of the challenges to backstory is that readers need to know it to understand the goals, behaviors, and beliefs of the characters, but done wrong, it can slow the story and bore the reader.

Here are tips for incorporating backstory into your novel:

1. Reveal backstory when it's needed.

At the start of the story, readers don't need to know your characters' histories. Information is only needed to make sense of something the character is thinking, believing, or doing. If your character runs into a dog and shows extreme fear, that would be the time to let the reader know about the time she was trapped in a tree by a dog.

2. Incorporate backstory into the present as a way to reveal something about your characters.

Backstory works best when it’s woven into what’s currently happening the story. For example, if your character hates eggs because it was what she was eating the day her father walked out on the family, when her friend offers to make her eggs, that would be the time to reveal her association between eggs and her father leaving. She doesn’t need to tell her friend her life’s history or think it in narrative for the reader. Instead, you can drop a hint into her response to her friend when she turns down the eggs.
“No thank you. I don’t eat eggs.” She pushed away the image of the door closing behind her father for the last time as her eggs sat cold on her plate.
You keep the reader present in the story, while also giving a hint about the characters history.

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Find the Backstory Readers Want to Know)  

3. Don't overdo backstory even when it fits in with the current story.

Readers enjoy getting clues about characters instead of the full history all at once. People’s personalities and psyches are like onions with many layers. When revealing information about your characters, do it layer by layer instead of a single information dump. It not only keeps the reader present in the story, but also provides intrigue to keep the reader interested and guessing about the character.

For example, in the egg scenario:
“No thank you. I don’t eat eggs.”
A reader’s first thought would be, why not? She didn’t say she didn’t like eggs. She said she didn’t eat them.
She pushed away the image of the door closing behind her father as her eggs sat cold on her plate.
We’ve learned something that is seemingly unimportant (I don’t eat eggs), but it’s the first layer to understanding her sense of loss or abandonment by her father.

(Here's more with Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)  

4. Determine when it's best to tell versus show backstory.

Sometimes, you can get away with writing a backstory scene, but you need to careful that it doesn't take the reader out of the story. For example, in the eggs for scenario, she can have a quick flash back to the last time she ate eggs, listening to her parents argue, and then her father walking out.

If the memory is just a tidbit about character, telling the reader or having the character tell it, can be a better option, such as in the egg example: She pushed away the image of the door closing behind her father as her eggs sat cold on her plate.

In the woman scared of the dog scenario, we don't need to relive that scene unless it's crucial to the story. Instead, she can say, "I've been afraid of dogs since I was chased up a tree by one."

(Here's more with Are You Showing or Telling Your Internalization?)  

5. Use dialogue to reveal backstory.

Most novels involve people spending time together who might chat and share details about their lives. Don't have a discussion about childhoods simply to give them something to talk about or as filler. Instead, use it as an opportunity to reveal character by what and how they tell their story.

In my book Wed to You, Jagger and Chelsea are talking about their pasts so they can appear to know each other well enough to pull off a fake marriage. But Jagger is terse and angry when he tells his story.
“My mother took off a week after I was born with some rich baron or something. She’s working her way through men as fast as my father works through women. My father was relieved my mother left. Neither of my parents wanted me and each tried to pawn me off on the other.”

....Jagger stared at her with hard eyes and then turned away as if he couldn’t look at her.
In this scene, we learn a CliffsNotes version of his childhood, but also experience his anger and pain about it.

(Here's more with Revealing a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory) 

6. Use a prologue...maybe...

The problem with prologues is when they’re a backstory dump that wastes time. Many agents and publishers don’t like them because they’re usually unnecessary. But if you find one necessary, keep it short and end it with a bang that leaves the reader wanting to read on.

In the case of the eggs or the dog example, you’d want to end the prologue at the height of the emotion; the heartbreak and fear of dad leaving or the terror of being stalked by a dog.

Just remember that readers enjoy the journey of discovering the character's secrets and fears through the story.

(Here's more with Pondering the Prologue: Keep it or Kill it?) 

7. Remember the purpose of backstory.

The important thing to remember is that readers only need backstory to help them understand characters in the current story. In the dog and egg example, if being chased by a dog or dad’s leaving isn’t crucial to the character’s personality, motivations, behaviors, or goals, then it’s not necessary for the story.

About Drawn to Her: Book One of the Southern Heat Series

He doesn't trust her, but he's powerless to resist her. He's...Drawn to Her. Feisty and outspoken, Lexie McKenna will do anything to protect her cantankerous and ailing patient--even if it means going up against his cold and calculating, but sexy and irresistible, grandson. After all, as a nurse, her number one priority is her patient. Drake Carmichael doesn't trust the nurse who's taking care of his grandfather--despite how adorable and compassionate she seems. He refuses to let her get her grips into their hard-earned money.

But as the two square off and begin to battle about what is best for the dying man, Lexie and Drake realize that first impressions are deceiving. Lexie discovers a warm, vulnerable man beneath cold, calculating armor, and Drake finds he's helpless against Lexie's gentle heart and beguiling smile. Once they finally give in to their desires, the battle has only just begin.

As the clash between family and fortune ignites, the love they both crave could burn to ash.

Amazon Barnes & Noble | iTunes Indie Bound | Kobo 


  1. Concise and well-explained. How to tell backstory is always difficult, I find.

    1. Thank you. I'm so glad you found it helpful!

  2. It has always fascinated me that as writers we continually worry about how much backstory and when to tell it. Just think about your friends. When you met them and how you each learned the other’s story. It didn’t come all wrapped with a bow and as time and friendship continues, reveals do too.

  3. That's a great way to look at it! Thank you!