Weaving your backstory into your novel

Backstory is crucial. Every made-up world, every magic system, every family or group of friends needs to come from somewhere and have a history. Each character should have one — even minor characters.

I don’t say this lightly. It’s not as if these backstories will just burst forth from your brain fully formed; it takes a ton of work. Still, for the moment, I’m going to assume that you have these backstories figured out already, and just need to determine how to weave that into your story.

One of the most common problems I see in manuscripts is the extremely distracting attempt to shove the whole backstory into the first chapter. I can see why it might be tempting to get things going, but even still: don’t do it!

The first chapter is your opportunity to grab readers by telling a mini story: the inciting incident; that moment when things change and the character realizes something isn’t right. Such an incident shouldn’t be marred with meandering explanations and memories. Just show me what happens, and be sure to use plenty of dialogue and character interaction.

I don’t tend to care about people when they’re just folding laundry and thinking. Or driving and thinking. Or looking out the window or at themselves in the mirror …and thinking. The initial action shouldn’t be constantly interrupted with explanations about who people are and how they all fit together. Show that quickly or show it later, but don’t mar that first chapter. We know your characters have interesting backstories to share with us, but there are better ways and better places to do it.

So how can you weave that backstory in without distracting or boring your readers?

Create curiosity

No matter how you’re going to share your backstory, you first need to make your readers care about it. Don’t jar readers by interrupting yourself for no reason. If Paul is going in to give his boss bad news, I don’t want to get stuck waiting while I read about the conversation he had with his wife that morning — unless I have some reason to be curious about it. Make me ask a question, then answer it with some backstory.

This can easily be achieved by introducing that memory with a hint of why it’s important. Maybe he hopes his boss won’t confirm the accusations his wife was throwing around. What? She was accusing someone? What does it have to do with his boss? And there you go: you’ve just given a reason for a flashback or a brief explanation of the argument.

Or how about this: instead of describing your protagonist’s turbulent childhood while she’s staring out a window, have her meet someone and shy away from shaking their hand. Now I want to know why, and you can tell me about human touch being traumatic to her. Still, keep it just a little for now: save most of it to be sprinkled into the story where it fits naturally. If you’ve created curiosity, then you have a little niche for a brief explanation. Before summarizing anything within the narration, however, consider whether it can be done through memories or dialogue instead.

Flashbacks, memories and dreams

All I’m going to say about dreams is: be sure not to overuse it. It can feel like a cop-out; like you couldn’t figure out a better way to tell the story. Of course, if the dream is the story — as in, someone discovers they can see the future in their dreams — then that’s a different matter entirely. But just throwing a dream in to show a character’s angst can be frustrating to read. Just think about how much you enjoy listening to other people tell you their dreams.

If it’s been introduced well, a flashback can be a great device, either in the middle of a scene or as its own scene. Flashbacks can be set off clearly by using italics, or introduced by using the past perfect tense — which is non-negotiable if your story is in past tense. If you need more guidance in this area, I like Grammar Girl’s explanation of past perfect.

Tell through dialogue

My favorite. When an explanation gets too long, one of my most common questions for writers is, “Can this be explained in dialogue?” A character telling their story to someone else, reactions and all, is so much more interesting to read than a summary in the narration. For one thing, dialogue breaks it up and makes it less daunting for your patience-deficient readers. I want to see how people interact, because that’s what moves relationships and personalities. I want to hear how a character describes their experiences and how they were affected by them, and I really want to know how their friend, family member, new acquaintance, or love interest responds. Think about how often this tactic is used in movies — confiding in one another. It’s ready-made conversation meat, and it moves the plot forward.

Dialogue like this should be done carefully, however, with plenty of small pauses to indicate tone of voice, changing emotions, facial expressions and reactions from the listener. Avoid long monologues; those aren’t a whole lot better than narrative info dumps, and they don’t utilize the emotions of both characters. The speaker can hesitate or swallow. The listener can interject. Either can look away, close their eyes, scowl, grin, or take the other’s hand. In a way, these reactions can guide readers’ reactions, the way music in a movie guides our reactions and expectations.

I’m convinced that the way backstory is revealed — whether dumped awkwardly in the middle of a chapter or naturally woven into the action and interactions – can make or break a story. Give plenty of thought to how you’ll do it, try different tactics, and get feedback from others. Skilled backstory weaving will spice up and deepen your characters, making them relatable and unforgettable for readers.

This post was originally published on The Writer’s Assistant


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Word nerd who loves reading and perfecting. Editor and creator of The Writer’s Assistant.

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Word nerd who loves reading and perfecting. Editor and creator of The Writer’s Assistant.

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