Wednesday, January 13, 2010

6 Common Backstory Pitfalls

Backstory tends to have a bad reputation, but it’s essential to a story’s development. Through backstory, we learn about a character’s motivation and depth, how a fictional world functions, how the stakes are raised, and discover obstacles or fears that may prevent the character from moving forward. Unfortunately, many writers don’t know how to correctly insert backstory into the plot. Here’s a list of six common backstory pitfalls:

1. The dump. This is when a large chunk of backstory is tossed into the plot, which pulls the reader from the immediate story. A way to spot the dump is to look for a page or more of backstory. The writer usually feels she must include this in order to inform the reader about the character’s past and how it influences him today. This can still be done, but not as a large section. Slip it in here and there.

2. The lesson. This is when the writer uses backstory to teach a moral or preach their opinion to the reader and shouldn’t be done. A fictional story is not a platform for the author to rant about his beliefs.

3. The attention hog. Backstory shouldn’t draw attention to itself or take away from the main plot. It should be subtly included as a part of the story.

4. The leap. If a trigger isn’t used to pull the character from the story, then there’s often more of a jolt to the reader. A trigger can’t always be used, but should be whenever possible. Types of triggers include dialogue, events, scents, or sounds.

5. The rush. This happens when the writer is so excited about her story, she rushes to tell the reader everything as soon as possible. Instead, tease the reader by dividing the reveal of backstory into small segments scattered throughout the beginning of the novel.

6. The POV blunder. Sometimes, writers use backstory as a way to explain how their fictional world functions. This is fine if done correctly. The problem is when the writer forgets to keep the character’s POV in mind. If the character is a teenager, she’s not going to have the same understanding of life as an adult. If the story is a historical, whatever may not seem normal for today’s standards may be perfectly acceptable back then and therefore the character wouldn’t draw any attention to it.

This is not to say backstory shouldn’t be used. A story would be dry without it. However, the trick is learning how to sprinkle the information throughout the story without the reader noticing.

Are you guilty of any of these pitfalls? Which ones? How do you add backstory to your novel?


  1. When I began writing my first draft I did a little of #1. But now that I'm on draft *a thousand* I've made sure to fix that. (At least I think I have.)

    You've received the "Happy" award. Check out "I'd Like to Thank the Happy Academy" at =)

  2. Okay, you caught me with the Rush. I do tend to get too excited.
    That's a good check list.

  3. Great list Lynnette! I like this a lot. I'm sure I've done all of the above at some point.

  4. Great overview. I think I've stumbled into each one of these at some point.

  5. The POV one can sneak up and bite you!
    The last two books I wrote did involve some back story up front, but I involved in the character's actions - and then I sprinkled the rest throughout the book.
    Think it's just one of those things a writer must stuble through before figuring it out...

  6. I'm a rusher and a dumper. *waves with a red hand*

    Winged Writer

  7. Great stuff. I love how you laid it all out for us. Guilty as charged on all counts, most likely. :-)

  8. What a great list, if I can keep it in mind while I finish my novel it will save me a lot of editing later.
    I hunger for all the writing advice I receive from blogs. Thank you for providing help to budding writers.

  9. Oh...oh yes. In the first incarnation of my current WIP, I didn't quite understand how to use backstory properly, and ended up with about 10 pages out of 20 in the first chapter being nothing but backstory.
    It sounded terrible! And then I ditched the whole first chapter, broke up only the most important backstory parts into little pieces that I sprinkled in when they actually made sense-- like when something actually HAPPENED to make someone think about backstory!
    (Imagine that, ACTION instead of passive narrator voice! lol)

  10. I was very guilty of "The Lesson" with my first novel. I toned it down a bit during revisions, but I've def learned a lot since then. Won't make that mistake on my second novel.
    Great breakdown. :)
    Click for My Blog

  11. Like most everyone, I was horribly guilty of this in my first novel, but I cleaned it up quite a bit. It's the urge to explain everything to the reader that get's us. We want to TELL them what happened:-) But... we need to find sneaky fun ways to tell them instead of just pouring it on them all at once.

  12. I am sometimes guilty of not putting enough backstory in my novels. At least, that's what I'm learning through the editing process now. Backstory on characters is important because it lets the reader know WHY. I tend to write to succinctly and like to leave that stuff out.

    Turns out, that's not good either and I'm having to go back and thread more backstory into the piece. It's a fine balance, I guess.

    Interesting stuff to think about.

  13. This is very helpful. I know I'm guilty of all of these, because I love backstory, both in the stories I read and the stories I write. Recently I read that one cure for the backstory dump up front is to write the whole draft manuscript and then delete the first chapter. I just did that with my current WIP, and I think that strengthened the story a lot. The first chapter was there to get me started; once I wrote the whole story, the reader didn't need all that prologue.

  14. I'm guilty of the dump! Most of the time, I'm very good in holding out and not committing the rush.

    Really Angelic

  15. I have tendenacy to rush to get it out as soon as possible. Instead of just letting the backstory reveal itself naturally. But that what rewrites are for, right? :-)

  16. Great reminder list, Lynette! And very succinct. Thanks for sharing it!

  17. Glad to see nobody's in denial. We know what our strengths and weakenesses are, right? If not, discovering them is a part of the process.

    Lynnette Labelle

  18. I dumped. I admit it, and I dumped early (chapter 4). By I am unrepentant. Actually, is it a dump if you give a little backstory and become intrigued with where it's heading? If it becomes a story in and of itself, interesting on its own merits, yet still contributes to the novel as a whole?

  19. Hi Lynnette -

    I was guilty of the dump with my first manuscript. A journalist friend informed me my story started on page 10.

    Susan :)