Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Bane of Backstory in Your Novel

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

No character was born the moment the book starts – just like humans, characters have history: joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, good times and bad times. The sum of our experiences make us what WE are and, ultimately, determine the choices we make. Characters are exactly the same. Backstory makes characters “breathe” – to come alive. Without backstory, there is no character. 

Backstory is also about motivation. In the movie Up, Carl is broken-hearted because his wife has died. He decides to fulfill the dream they had of traveling to Paradise Falls but runs into multiple problems along the way. His motivation, whatever the obstacles he faces, never changes. He is doing everything for Ellie. Without that knowledge, we may not have any sympathy for the character because he's pretty hard to get along with. But, since we know WHY, we are happy for him when he realizes what's really important in his life and does what's necessary to achieve it. Backstory is essential in most fiction written today. A reader wants to be involved with a character, wants to laugh and cry and cheer as the character goes through their adventure. It's the motivation for what a character does what they do. We need it to understand. 

Why is backstory such a problem? Because many writers use it incorrectly. 

The positive side of backstory is that it creates curiosity in the reader by providing necessary information and giving clues as to our character's history. It also delivers both character and plot development by showing motivation. WHY is the character doing what he or she does? Writers also use backstory to deepen internal conflict and increase tension by upping the stakes. We SHOW who our character is by body language, dialogue, actions, and thoughts, but the backstory is WHY they act the way they do. 

The drawback? 

Backstory slows the action to a crawl, takes away the mystery, and can be downright boring if it's in the wrong place or there's too much of it. I love a particular mystery writer but, all too often, she stops the action completely to explain something that happened in the past, which is usually when I take a break from reading the story. And, I may not pick the book up again. Another way writers misuse backstory is when they tell us too much at the beginning of a story. How much does the reader need to know? Does it have to be told in backstory? It's much more interesting to SHOW the character's personality through what they do, rather than to TELL us. 

So how do we properly and creatively incorporate backstory?

1. Use a prologue. I don't really recommend this for all stories but if you watch the first few minutes of Up, you'll see how masterfully it can be done.

2. A dream sequence. This usually is more of a flashback but it works well in certain situations.

3. Following a strong action scene. It allows reader to catch their breath and better understand WHY a character does what he/she does.

4. At the mid-point, a place where a character must give up their old ways to continue their journey. 

5. Letters/journals/conversations with a trusted friend.

6. Sprinkle hints throughout. Keep the reader guessing as to why the character acts the way they do.

7. Only where it deserves to be – it must EARN its spot!

Note: Backstory and flashbacks are very similar but usually a flashback is told with an action scene (although it's in the past, it happens in actual time in the story), and backstory is usually a memory, told in a multitude of ways, of something that happened before the story began. Think action (flashback) as compared to memory explained to someone else (backstory), although that's not always the case. Not confusing at all!

How do you handle backstory? Do you like to read it, or would you rather the author start in media res (in the middle of the action)?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. I have a love/hate relationship with backstory. I love what I learn about my characters but hate to read too much of it in a story. I've discovered when I begin a new WIP, I tend to include a little in the first draft. Then, I weed it out with each subsequent edit, until it's gone, replacing it in snippets scattered throughout the book. I dislike a book with backstory in the beginning, although a short prologue, a single scene, is okay.

  2. I love the way you put it, by the way! Thanks Sally.

  3. Thank you for such good, informative, and helpful advice. You put it in a very understanding way. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Backstory and flashbacks are a balancing act. Sometimes it's like vanilla flavoring, too much is too much, but too little is—too little. Donevy

    1. Exactly! Although some genres can get away with almost no backstory, it's like the "heart" of the story is lost without it.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. I have found a problem almost as big as the backstory: people whop have read too many books about the problem of the back story and therefore think the backstory is ever, only and always bad. And if a story does not start in media res, they assume that the beginning of the story is the backstory.