Friday, May 17, 2013

I Remember When: Effective Use of Backstory, Part I

By Karen Albright Lin

One of the trickiest challenges for writers is conveying backstory. We’re in the midst of dramatic action, enlightening narrative or compelling dialogue and, OH MY, we realize that we need to let our reader know something that happened in the past. Instinctually, we want to talk to our readers as we would over wine and cheese. “If he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in.” Conversations in real life are often backstory: gossip, commiseration, bragging, praising, bitching, and so on. When writing our books, however, it’s wise to think twice before jumping back, leaving the current story, or confusing matters by turning your attention 180 degrees away from the peak of that hill you are climbing, thus diminishing momentum and some of the power of your strategically placed foretelling.

Most of us are familiar with the dreaded backstory that is the data dump we’re convinced must be given right up front in order to understand our characters’ coming adventures. How many times have we heard we should lop off that first chapter and begin with the inciting incident or even start just after the action that is essential for the story to exist? What we chop off is likely backstory.

Despite using the terms chop and lop, I don’t mean to make backstory sound like some evil craft error that writers must avoid at all cost. On the contrary, when used well it conveys important information that adds layers and texture to your current story. It can even support your theme and add subplots. 

My editing clients struggle with it more than almost any other aspect of their writing.

How do we offer important background? 

One way is to impart vital information from the past using FLASHBACKS (in which readers are thrust back into an actual scene – living it vividly). We can use NARRATIVE, internal commentary or a layer that allows the writer to become a subtle (or not so subtle) part of the story. We can also offer up knowledge about the past through DIALOGUE. Each has its pros and cons, its potential for brilliance and its risks of stepping into painful traps.

Backstory through CONVERSATION is best if indirect. On-the-nose dialogue will come off as plastic and an obvious info dump: “As you know, Beth, I spent three years in Japan.” Indirectly conveying that same information will get the idea across in a more organic manner and enlighten on character: “She won’t think I’m still that Ozark hick when she sees what three years of bowing, chopsticking, and Sumo diaper folding has done to me.”     

Using DRAMATIC NARRATIVE to enlighten on the past is not simply offering a list of facts. It’s an exciting and colorful summary that brings yesterday into the present: Someday he’d tell her what it was like to wrap thirty feet of cloth around four hundred-pound men with albacore breath. 

Note: any backstory imparted about our character’s time in Japan shouldn’t be just an interesting fact. It is there because it’s essential to the story in some way, informs what is happening now.

The trickiest form of backstory to pull off is the FLASHBACK. It recounts previous events by taking readers back in time to an actual scene. A none-too-subtle example is Harry Potter’s Pensieve (the stone basin that reviews memories).       


To add depth to a character: 

  • To enlighten about relationships from the past and bring current ones into sharper focus
  • To better understand personality and current motivations, fears, barriers to love, and to create sympathy or empathy. A character’s desperate goal keeps readers hooked.
  • Seeing an important scene in real time offers us the opportunity to get two perspectives, that of your character and that of his younger self. Think of Forest Gump
  • It helps describe a character before and after a trauma. In Nora Roberts’s Angels Fall her protagonist was witness to, and injured in, a mass murder changing her forever.
For the story’s sake:

  • It fills in gaps with active scenes that engage.
  • Introduces facts from the past that readers need in order to understand current events.
  • If it is a framed story—like A Prayer for Owen Meany— one can begin the story after the action is over.
  • It offers clarity about how the world works.
  • Reveals obstacles
  • Raises stakes. In The Fugitive Harrison Ford’s character’s freedom is at stake because he was accused of murder and is being chased by the law.
  • It helps to make the stakes personal. Again in The Fugitive, Harrison Ford’s character saw his wife killed (through flashback).
  • If the story takes place all over the temporal map, flashbacks may be essential. One could argue that The Time Traveler’s Wife is written entirely in flashbacks.
  • They offer opportunities to create buttons that, if pushed, are obstacles to your character. Think of Marty McFly in Back to the Future and his aversion to being called a chicken.
For the writing sake:

  • To show instead of tell backstory, creating a fully realized story world.
  • To add dimension to the writing and create richer drama
  • To add suspense. For example, in one of my books I add suspense by gradually unfolding important backstory: first showing that my character avoids the media, later we learn of her fear that her true identity will be discovered by the public, later we learn her mother disappeared when she was a young girl and that she blamed herself, later we learn that she was a witness protection kid and she has long believed that her mother was killed because she told a friend her real name, and now she fears exposure can make her own daughter vulnerable. Unraveling the past sheds light on the present.
  • Flashbacks help contrast events, people or objects in fiction. In No One Asked the River, a screenplay I wrote with Janet Fogg, the archaeologist protagonist lost his son in an accident on a dig. He still blames himself. It affects him when another young boy dies on his watch. This contrasts this POV character before and after a traumatic experience. Contrast is a powerful tool.

Sometimes the benefits of using flashbacks outweigh the sacrifice of immediacy.

Next post, I’ll address when and how to most effectively use flashbacks.

Come back next month for Part II of Karen's Backstory series.

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. This is a really helpful post! I enjoyed reading this very much.

  2. I enjoy reading backstory and I think new writers often shy away from including it because they see it as one of the 10 commandments of writing fiction: Thou shalt not include backstory in thy novel.

    I think the fear, as you said, is the dreaded infodump, but new writers intent on following all the rules start to see everything that isn't action or dialogue as an infodump. And that's simply not true.

    As long as whatever is conveyed on the page moves the story forward, I'm happy. :) I like flashbacks and anecdotes quite a lot. It's like sneaking a peek into the characters' past and that's always fun. Almost like reading their diaries, lol.

  3. I'm struggling with this RIGHT NOW, thanks for this.


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