Wednesday, November 23, 2011

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 and 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. (For example, the smell of a pumpkin pie baking in the oven causes Jodi to flashback to her youth, when her mother used to bake. There was one time in particular, when she and her mother were putting the ingredients together to create a new recipe for pumpkin pie, but Gary stormed into the kitchen, drunk as ever, and threw the bowl against the wall.) This trigger allowed the character to smoothly transition into a flashback. She’d also need something to bring her back to reality. Maybe the phone rings or someone says something to her, etc.

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?

Lynnette Labelle


  1. I've tried to avoid those, although a little dumping occurred in my first book I'm sure.
    And yeah, really miss the Friday puzzles.

  2. It took me a long time to get the knack of back story. I want to read stories that involve what is happening to the characters now. Back story should, if given at all, only detail things that would be confusing without a little foreknowledge. Don't flood a story with a bunch of back story, write a prequel ;)

  3. LOL: I did write the prequel :) Which is why I am sometimes prone to the attention hog issue.

    I use triggers for flashbacks - I like it better than straight narrative memory; but yeah, the trick is knowing when to add it and how much to add.


  4. Alex: I know. ;) I've been really busy. I'll try to bring them back soon.

    J.R. Nova: Exactly. Or sprinkle the details into the story, so the reader barely notices.

    Donna: That's right and it's not always easy to figure out. This is one of the reasons it's good to have someone else (another writer or editor) look at your manuscript.

    Lynnette Labelle