On Writing

Writing Pitfall #12: How To Create Backstory


Wikipedia mashed together two great definitions of backstory: “A backstorybackground storyback-story or background is a set of events invented for a plot, presented as preceding—and leading up to that plot. It is a literary device of a narrative history all chronologically earlier than the narrative of primary interest.”

What does that mean to you the writer? To me, it means in order to completely support your plot, character motivations, and development of your story line you should have a detailed backstory analysis before writing even begins. But be wary of  getting trapped with too much backstory that drags down the reader. It’s a balance an author needs to master.

I compare it metaphorically to a ladder, which has many rungs to climb. You have to take each rung one at a time in order to reach the top. Jumping from the ground to the middle rungs is hard and you can slip and fall.  The top isn’t even reachable yet, and you’re too short to pull yourself up. Starting at the bottom, backstory is the foundation to any ladder and will only help you rise to the top. As you ascend the ladder, looking down is okay and even encouraged to see your progress if you’re not far from the bottom, but once at the top, it can be a dizzying experience causing your ladder to wobble and fall.

Make sense?

Mastering backstory may not be for every writer. It’s hard to write and plan out all of your characters, settings, emotions, relationships, and etc. It’s difficult to surmise how much is enough or not enough. Many writers find developing their characters and motivations as they write is easier and allows them to keep things fresh and in perspective. While others will need the extra structure in order to guide them as they write; hence the climb up the ladder. Both types of these authors can bog themselves down with too much backstory if they aren’t careful.

How do you create an effective backstory? I found a list of five things to consider while writing backstory from an article on Wikihow and made it a little of my own.

  1. Start from the very beginning—childhood: All things have a beginning. Find the root of your characters histories with their past. Write it all out and keep it as reference for yourself. 
  2. Compare what you’ve come up with to your character’s personality: Does your history make sense to what the your character is doing in the present? For ex. If  Billy was shy, he’s not going to be all of a sudden outgoing later on without a reason.
  3. Write the plot for the story: Most times this is done already but after your backstory is developed or your have a clear idea of where your characters are going, the plot can change or you need to revisit other elements running around in your head.
  4. Reread the backstory: Does it all make sense with your entire story? If not, go back and rework it. Having something out of place will trip up a  reader.
  5. Now that you’ve made the backstory, get another opinion: You may think it works in your head, but to others it’s a big old mess. Have a writing partner help keep you on goal with your characters.

Now that you have your foundation, how much do you inject into your story? It’s a question of how much you want your reader to learn and how much you need to know in your own head as you write. While injecting backstory is prudent to the story line, most times backstory if purely for the author’s purposes. My general rule of thumb is to keep it as simple as possible.

For example, Sally’s backstory includes being bullied by a boy named Timmy when she was a child. It makes it hard for her to trust men. Now,  in present day, she’s attracted to her future math tutor,  happens to be named Tim. His name is a reminder of the pain she went through growing up. How would you write Sally in a scene letting the reader understand Sally’s mental state and her reaction without really telling too much backstory?

Remember, keep it simple.

Here’s an example of how to inject the right amount of backstory.

“I’m Tim. Would you like to dance?”

A shiver ran down Sally’s spine and she stumbled.

He placed a hand on her arm. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Sally snapped, shaking off his arm. “Excuse me.” She walked away under the weight of her immediate regret. This handsome man named Tim wasn’t Timmy from Boston—Timmy who constantly tormented her in grade school and gave her the nickname Back Alley Sally.

No, Tim appeared to be a kind and beautiful transfer student from Australia and her new math tutor, but she couldn’t ignore the cold sweat on her upper lip after he said his name. All of those years Timmy bullied her on the playground surfaced with a vengeance. She was being ridiculous but didn’t have the nerve to apologize just then. Maybe she’d muster the courage at their first tutoring session.

What does this backstory tell you about Sally?

Sally has trouble trusting men named Tim, and by extension, trusting men in general. She was bullied in school when she was younger, and she’s intimidated meeting new people.  Also you can see, Sally may be more introverted than extroverted and has trouble in math.

We don’t go into specifics of how young Timmy harassed her, nor do we need to right now. We can touch briefly when Sally meets Tim again. We also don’t see any lengthy descriptions of how she felt while she was bullied or how it shaped her into the person she’s become. It’s already implied by her reactions to Tim.

Writer’s Digest has a great article How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly by Brian Klems and discusses how much backstory is too much or not enough.

If you have trouble with backstory, Write Divas can always help. Leave a comment below about how you deal with writing backstory.

Previous Article in the Writing Pitfalls Series: Writing Pitfall #11: Stereotypes and Cliches

Entire Series: Writing Pitfalls for First Time Authors

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