Kate Swanson wrote her first novel at 15, created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit and creating websites ever since.
If you want your reader to pick up your novel and be hooked from the very first page, it's vital to throw them straight into the narrative, and not bore or distract with background detail. But on the other hand, that background detail—how your characters got to where they are today—is essential for your audience to understand what's going on. So how do you know what to include? How do you incorporate it effectively? That's the art of "backstory."
The difficulty, of course, is that there are rarely any "clean breaks" in the story of someone's life. Your novel cuts just one slice out of a continuum that stretches all the way back to when your characters were born, and continues far beyond the end of your book.
What you have to do is decide how big the slice is. Where in the lifeline of your main character do you make the first cut, and where do you finish?
Why is your heroine so touchy about her weight? (because her ex left her for a skinny supermodel).
Why does your hero step in and stop some anonymous kids fighting? (because his brother died in a similar fight when he didn't intervene).
With that in mind, many novices think they have to start with the backstory, so the reader understands the later scenes. The result is a long, boring prologue or first chapter. Readers are left thinking, "Why do I need to know this? What's the point?" - because there's no way to hint at the impact those scenes will have in the future (unless you resort to statements like "Little did she know that in the future..." which is old-fashioned, clunky and breaks the reader's connection with the character). Most readers will give up before they get to the real action!
The rule of thumb is: if in doubt, leave it out!
There are plenty of techniques which enable you to incorporate backstory into your main narrative as you go along (which we'll look at shortly). It takes practice to blend them seamlessly into your story, but they're very effective when you do. So there's no need to start your story with tedious background. Instead, your novel should always start with your main story. Ask yourself, what is my novel's main event?
An Example of Too Much Backstory
To give you an example, a friend asked me to critique her novel about her family history. She felt it was worth telling, because her great-grandfather had been hanged for murdering his wife (although he maintained his innocence to the end), and that event had affected the family for generations.
It's obvious that her "main event" is how her great-grandfather came to be arrested and tried for murder. If I were writing the novel, I'd be spoiled for choice on how to start! For instance, I could open with:
- the murder itself, concealing the identity of the murderer; or
- great-grandfather on the run (it was an exciting chase!) or
- a Prologue set in the courtroom during the trial - then Chapter 1 would go back to a scene where the wife is alive, so we get to know her before the dastardly deed is done.
Instead, my friend started her novel with a Prologue about her family history, including:
- When they arrived in the area (generations before great-grandfather);
- an exhaustive list of who married whom and when;
- how many children each generation had;
- how their religious beliefs were formed;
- how they lived
For readers who survived the prologue, Chapter 1 then describes the scene on her great-grandfather's homestead before the murder actually takes place.
The sad thing is that there was a cracking yarn waiting in later chapters, but the average reader wouldn't make it past the Prologue, let alone through the tedious Chapter 1.
The even sadder thing is that almost the entire Prologue and Chapter 1 had NO relevance to the story. The reader didn't need to know one speck of that family history to understand her great-grandfather's story. Which brings me to another important point:
You have to be ruthless! It's hard enough to include essential history without slowing the narrative—squeezing in irrelevant details is the kiss of death.
I know, I know—you've done all that research and it seems such a shame to waste it! But the truth is, if it doesn't carry the story along, it will only annoy readers rather than interest them.
When to Include Backstory
A golden rule for backstory is, don't include it until it's needed.
Every time you're tempted to add in a bit of your character's history, ask yourself, "Does the reader need to know this information right now?"
If not, leave it out.
Sometimes, it's fine to break this rule—for instance, something happens in a scene which would naturally make your character think about his past. It would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to mention it. Just don't dwell on it, or offer too much detail, if it's not important at that point in the story.
How to Include Backstory
Once you've decided what the relevant bits of backstory are, and when your reader needs to know them, the question is—how do you include them?
There are several techniques you can use, which we'll look at next. But whichever you choose, do it gradually. Never dump all your backstory into the narrative in one solid, indigestible lump.
Aside to the Camera
Have you ever watched a film where the action suddenly freezes, and the main character turns and starts talking straight to the camera? That's the rookie way of inserting backstory in your novel, and it's a bad idea.
Let's say your narrator is Grace, and you've got to the point where the reader needs to know about Marcia. So you write a paragraph that says:
"Grace could not blame Marcia for refusing to drink wine with Aloart. Marcia believed that Aloart's father, then Count of Drico but now King of Malako, had engineered the death of her father when Marcia had been but five years old, in order to deny her family its birthright and achieve his own ascension to the throne."
That all makes sense, BUT would Grace (our narrator) actually be thinking all of that in her head? No, because she knows the story well. The most she would think is, "I can't blame Marcia, given that rat probably killed her father". If you include more than that, it's as though Grace is stopping, turning to the readers and saying, "Oh, sorry, just to bring you up to speed..."
If you're writing the story in third person subjective, or in first person, then you're trying to immerse the reader inside your main character's head. You want your reader to BE the character. The moment your main character turns and starts explaining stuff to the reader, you remind the reader they're an outsider. You destroy the illusion. So it's better to find other ways to include the backstory.
Note that there is a style of novel written as though the main character is telling a yarn, perhaps sitting around a campfire. In that style of writing, the reader is always outside listening to the main character, so there's no problem with the character stopping to explain odd bits of background or interjecting a comment—in fact it helps maintain the mood.
The most obvious way to include backstory is a flashback. The big problem with flashbacks is that, strictly speaking, they should be written in the pluperfect tense. If that doesn't mean much to you, it's because it's a tense we rarely use in daily life, so it feels unnatural to most people!
Pluperfect (or past perfect) is used to show that the events you're describing are happening before the events in the novel, which are already in the past. If you just tell the flashback in ordinary past tense, the reader can get confused and think the events are happening at the same time as the rest of the novel, and then it will make no sense.
Here's an example:
He dragged an old barrel into the corner of the cellar to set on while he got his breath back. He couldn't hear his pursuers. Time to rest awhile and work out what to do next. He barely understood what had happened.
She had been dead when he opened the door. He hadn't even had time to cross the floor to touch her, when he had heard the squelch of boots on the muddy path. He had had to think fast, and the cellar door had been the only way out. He had bolted through the door, barred it behind him and taken the steps two at a time, not stopping to light a candle. The cellar had been dim, lit only by the small window through which they delivered supplies. He had ...
Notice all the "had's"? That's pluperfect. If you said "she was dead when he opened the door", the reader might think he was opening a door in the cellar, right then and there. The pluperfect is essential to show these are events he's thinking back to - but you can see it can become clunky. And if it's a long flashback, there's always a slightly awkward transition back to the main narrative at the end.
That's why using other techniques to introduce backstory is generally preferable.
One of the great things about modern third-person subjective writing is that you write inside the head of your characters, not standing outside them. That gives you the chance to report their thoughts, as well as their actions.
Think about it—how often do you go over events in your head, or beat yourself up over something, or mentally complain that circumstances have forced you into a particular action? You can use that natural tendency in your characters. Here's an example:
The bathwater was too hot. Gabrielle perched on the side of the bath while she ran the cold, swishing the water with her hand now and then to test the temperature.
Her dress was beyond redemption. She was almost glad, in spite of the cost. Only her mother would choose a scarlet dress for a redhead. She stepped out of it. The cool air struck her skin and she hurried to climb into the warm water. It came almost to her neck, warm, silky and fragrant with bath salts.
She closed her eyes. Let it wash away all trace of Bertie!
She raised her hand out of the water. Blue marks were already developing where he had gripped her wrist. Would she have bruises on her face too, where he’d clamped his hand over her mouth—she dunked herself under the water, head and all, as if to hide from the memory.
It didn’t work. She surfaced, and a sob escaped her.
Pull yourself together, Gabby. Chin up!
That’s what her grandmother would have said. But she would have said it in a kindly way, and given her a warm hug and a hot cup of chocolat for comfort. But Grand’maman was dead, lost in the Great War, along with darling Papa. There was no home for her in Bordeaux now, and precious little hope of comfort in the poky Wimbledon flat she now called home. She couldn’t expect any sympathy from Mama—just an interrogation.
In this fairly short internal monologue, I've told you Gabrielle is a redhead, she's French, her nickname is Gabby, she doesn't get on with her mother, and is exiled from France.
Unless you're writing a romance, though, you don't want to wallow in internal monologue, because it can slow down your narrative.
A more lively, and very simple, way to weave in backstory is dialogue. Your protagonist could talk about old times with her friend, or be interrogated by a new player. You could have two minor characters gossiping about your heroine's past, or someone reading out an old newspaper article.
There are so many ways to do this, I'm not going to attempt an example—now it's over to you!
Katharine L Sparrow from Massachusetts, USA on September 09, 2014:
I have been thinking of starting a novel, so this hub is perfect to help me getting started thinking about my characters. Now I can't wait to read your other tips on novel writing. Voted up and Useful!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 09, 2014:
@JamaGenee, I can see how a genealogist might find it hard to switch to drip-feeding backstory!
Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 09, 2014:
I've wrestled with how to include backstory effectively in a partly biographical mystery I started a couple of years ago. After many revisions, I decided that using dialogue between two characters AND what a character is thinking - but sparingly- is the way to keep the story moving forward. Not easy for a long-time genealogist used to writing long, detailed narratives about who begat who going back seven or eight generations, but I'm getting the hang of it.
One how-to recommended writing out complete dossiers on each main character - physical description, likes, dislikes, personal quirks and such - in order to become as familiar with them as one would be with a family member or good friend. I find this works well if one doesn't have a character who "walks onto the page fully formed" as happens to some authors (like Jan Karon for her Father Tim/Mitford series). ;D
Ceres Schwarz on April 13, 2013:
Great hub. I agree that backstory is important but it should only include the relevant details otherwise it will just bore the reader. Your examples were great in showing how backstory should be done.
Elizabeth Y on February 10, 2013:
I wanted to tell you I thought a lot about what you said about demonstrating that there is hope. I don't want my book to be looked at as a downer. Lord knows, there is enough depressive stuff in this world. I am building a blog about this hope in hopelessness where I will be sharing bits and pieces of my personal and spiritual growth through hard times and plan on having each and everyone of those stories have a "silver lining", as many have had in my life. I want this blog to inspire. I wanted to thank you again.
Blessings to you,
Elizabeth Y on February 04, 2013:
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on February 04, 2013:
If the intention of your sotry is to offer "hope in the midst of hopelessnesss" then I'd say you should start by demonstrating that there is hope! Start with a prologue at the point in your life where you have found happiness and peace, so people know the story does have a happy ending.
Elizabeth Y on February 04, 2013:
Thank you so much for your response. My desire is for the general public to take something away from my story. To offer hope in the midst of hopelessness. People tell me I should write a book because of all the hardships I have had to overcome. The thing is most of my life story elicits a reaction. My story includes dozens of painful and typical life issues such as child abuse, neglect and abandonement, familial betrayal, troubled teen years and personal unrest, marriage full of deceit and heartache, divorce, abandoned as a single parent without child support and left with crippling debt ex created, living with chronic pain, step-parenting, God and more. Then there is the not so typical, like coming to the U.S. as a refugee from a communist country as a child, seeing a picture of my father and finding and meeting a sibling for the first time at midlife, the death of an adult child, destructive family secrets and estrangements, the suicide of a man I loved and more. I was going to begin from childhood and move in chronological order like in The Glass Castle, since I didn't know where else to begin. Thanks so much for your help! Elizabeth
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on February 01, 2013:
@Elizabeth, who are you writing the memoir for? Are you writing it as a memento for your family? If so, then a simple approach will be fine: your family are already invested in you as a character, so they'll be more willing to continue reading even if you have some "flat" sections. You could either start at the beginning, or start with a Prologue in the present day before going back to the beginning.
If you are writing your memoir for the general public, then ask yourself - why do people say I should write my story? Is there one particular story I tell, which elicits that reaction? That may help.
Elizabeth Y on February 01, 2013:
Great writing! Thanks for sharing so much valuable information. Newbies like me could use all the help we can get! People have been telling me for years I should write my story so I am writing a memoir. My story is certainly stranger than fiction. Since there are so many important facets to my story with multiple main events. Any hints on how to pick the main story to begin with.
Crazzy Kylex © 2012 from Incredible India! on June 30, 2012:
When it comes to a backstory, Flashbacks are the best form (no doubt)! Great hub, Marisa :) and useful to
ACSutliff on July 21, 2010:
Thanks! I needed to hear that. I have decided to set it aside and let it simmer for now. Most likely, the backstory will all be taken out, but this novel has other problems too (such as an over-devotion to character development), and I just need a break. Thanks for your help!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on July 18, 2010:
I think you need to take a long hard look at your backstory! There is no such thing as "important backstory" and "less important backstory".
If any of your backstory is "less important" - meaning you could leave it out and the reader would still understand your novel - then it's not just less important, it has no place in your book at all. I know it's hard to leave stuff out sometimes, we get too attached to it - but it has to be done. Backstory should ONLY cover information that is directly relevant to the current story. Nothing more.
ACSutliff on July 18, 2010:
Thank you Marisa,
Long as in the only way it could ever be published is as a trilogy. (We're talking 200,000 words and it's not even done yet.) I don't imagine I could get many people to read all that! HAHA~ I also can't tell if it's really working. I'm considering trying to fit in the most important backstory in another way. (Dialogue and inner monologue should work.) For now, I have to take a break from it.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on July 17, 2010:
@ACSutcliff, how long is long? I'd say, if it's working, stay with it.
ACSutliff on July 16, 2010:
I totally agree, again! I do have a question for you.
I read a book by my favorite author where the backstory was so marvelous. Here's what she did: A chapter of what's happening now, then a chapter of backstory, then another chapter from now, followed by more backstory, following that pattern, until the past caught up to the present and revealed what actually happened at the very beginning of the novel. It was brilliant.
I loved the structure so much, I tried it out on my novel, and I was happy to see how the chapters related to each other and stayed relevant. But it's making my book LONG! Do you have any thoughts on this kind of backstory?
Dobson from Virginia on March 31, 2010:
Another nice hub, I think i need to be a follower!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on February 22, 2010:
@Sa Toya, the important thing to ask yourself is - have I started at a point in the story which will get the reader's attention?
If something interesting happens at the beginning of her second year, then that's the place to start. But is the reader interested in how a complete stranger settles into uni? No. So you need to work out where the story starts to get interesting, and start there.
Sa Toya from England on February 22, 2010:
I really needed this. It's excellent!
I've been getting confused with my own novel in the making.
It's chick lit...about a girl's time at university where she attempts to find her self but gets stabbed in the back her best mate. That's really dry condensed version.
It's going pretty well but I've been getting caught up in the back story. Including the past, like pre uni life. I don't want my book to cover her entire time at uni either but focus on the last two years, that's where the drama really kicks off.
I'm worried about how I started now as well...
Is it OK to start the book at the beginning of her second year at uni.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on February 12, 2010:
@GadDragon - does this apply? Yes, with bells on. You have not only the character's backstory, but an entire civilisation's backstory to create - but if you spend the first chapter setting the scene, you'll lose your readers.
Remember your characters will take strange things like unfamiliar weapons, or two suns in the sky, for granted. You'll need more skill than the average writer to explain what they are without interrupting the story for whole paragraphs of clarification,but it can be done.
GadDragon from Ahwahnee, CA on February 12, 2010:
Thank you. There is much useful information in this posting. I will need to rethink some of what I'm doing based on what I read. The question I have, though, is does this information apply to Fantasy, even if you are setting your story in modern times?
Either way, I will be back for more tips. Thanks, again.
rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on February 11, 2010:
I'm so impressed marisa. please keep us posted. it is excellent writing, I thought it was from an already published novel!!
Korsita Korchenko from Louisiana on February 11, 2010:
That was very useful information. I learned quite a bit from it. Thankyou!
Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on February 11, 2010:
Excellent Hub. This is something I need to bookmark.
Rebecca Graf from Wisconsin on February 11, 2010:
This is probably the most wonderful hub I've ever read!! I'm not joking. I had to read it twice and I'll probably have to read it some more as I go back over my rough draft on one that I am working on. Thank you so much for such great advice.
Sara Tonyn from Ohio, the Buckeye State on February 11, 2010:
This is excellent! You packed a tremendous amount of information -- complete with great examples -- into a very neat, easy-to-read hub. This should be mandatory reading for all budding novelists. Bravo!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on February 10, 2010:
@rebekahELLE, glad you like it - but you might have to wait a while, it's from an unfinished romantic novel! Don't worry, Sir Ralph is about to come to the rescue...
@lmmartin, thanks - I'll check out your series.
lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on February 10, 2010:
We seem to be on the same quest, as I am currently working on a series, Good Writing Is ... Feel free to check it out. This article is terrific, and so is your example. I'll be back to read more. Glad to make your acquaintance. Lynda
rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on February 10, 2010:
what an excellent hub, marisa. so engaging, now I want to know about this last excerpt! about Garbrielle, what has happened to her?!
thanks for sharing, I'll be back to read more!