Backstory Problems & How to Overcome Them

Rarely does a good story-teller start chapter one on the day of the character’s birth and follow her chronologically through her childhood and life. Such a book would end up WAY too long. And we’d likely either fall asleep with boredom or toss the book aside and say, “Who cares?”

Instead, most writers find the incident that pushes our character into a series of dramatic and life-changing challenges. We want to plunge our reader into the story at a gripping point where they can say, “I care a whole lot!”

But what about all of the events that happen before the start of our stories? What do we do with all of it? How much do we include? And when?

Backstory is writer lingo for character history and story events that happen BEFORE the point our book starts. In other words, it’s everything that happened in the past that shaped our character’s personality and motivations into what they are when the book opens.

Multi-published author Kaye Dacus, out of curiosity asked me how I handle backstory: “How much do you like to know about your characters' backstories (and other story details) before you start that first chapter?”

Since I’m currently deeply immersed in the writing of my third contracted book, Kaye’s question is at the forefront of my mind. I’ll take a shot at answering the question. But please realize my process is just that, mine. We all have to land upon a system that works for our voice and style.

HOW MUCH backstory should writers know before starting chapter one?

My personal opinion: The more we know about our main characters (MCs), the better.

Why? When I get to know my MCs intimately before I start the story, then right from page one I’m able to jump into their characters and portray them uniquely and deeply.

I liken myself to an actor. Any actor can play their parts more authentically when they learn as much as they can about the tics, personality, and past of their characters. I use an extensive character worksheet. (I’ve made it available for free, so you’re welcome to print it out and use it for personal purposes.)

However . . . even though I strive to know all I can about my MCs before I start writing, I also give my characters the space to reveal more about themselves to me as the story progresses. Sometimes this kind of “revealing” will require me to go back during my editing and tweak the earlier chapters. For example in my current WIP, my hero didn’t reveal his expert knife-wielding ability to me until Chapter 4. Eventually, I’ll go back through the first few chapters to make sure I hint at this trait.

WHAT backstory should we include in the book?

My personal opinion: We usually need a lot less than we think we do.

Why? There’s very little backstory readers need to know to enjoy the story. I aspire to the iceberg philosophy. As an author I know the enormity of the past history and motivations. But it’s all under the water, the foundation and driving force of the story, but completely out of view of the reader. All they see is the very tip of the iceberg that floats on the surface.

If you’ve seen the movie Despicable Me, you’ll recall that we never learn the backstory of the three orphan girls that the evil Gru adopts. We don’t know how the trio came to be at the orphanage or what happened to their parents. It didn’t diminish the enjoyment of the story (especially for my junior high-aged kids who love slap-stick humor).

However . . . we don’t want to leave our readers feeling confused from a lack of information. When I add in backstory, I ask myself a couple questions: Does the information add to the plot? Will it help move the story along somehow? If not, then why am I putting it in?

WHEN should we reveal backstory?

My personal opinion: We should reveal very little in the first chapter and then weave it in carefully and gradually through the rest of the book.

Why? Readers want to jump into the present story, not the past (that’s often why prologues are unpopular). We want to draw readers into the current problem and resulting conflicts. Of course the past will have shaped MC’s goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC). But part of the fun of reading is discovering those GMCs as the story unfolds in tiny drops and small splashes (versus all in one dump).

However . . . if we wait too long to reveal past life-shaping events, we may alienate our readers from the character. We want our readers to know enough of the important past details so that they can empathize with our MCs.

Your turn! What’s your opinion? How much backstory is too much? What do you inlcude? And when do you add it in?

*Photo credit: Flickr missdarlene


  1. Fascinating post, Jody. And I love the accompanying photo. I don't write fiction, or read it very often, but when I do, I enjoy having the backstory details woven in so subtly that I absorb them without even realizing it. If some such detail is simply told to me, I find that somewhat contrived. By having it woven in carefully, I feel as though I'm getting to know a character more naturally, and "discovering" things about them for myself, as I might in real life. I don't imagine this is an easy task for authors, so my hat is off to those who do it well!

    ~ Betsy

  2. Good point, Jody. When I go back to the first (unpublished--and for a reason) novels on my hard drive, the first thing that jumps out at me is that I dumped backstory right into the first few scenes. Only later did I learn what you've mentioned.

    Don't pour the backstory out like water from a wide-open faucet. Barely open that faucet and let information drip out a little at a time. Some of the best novels I've read have saved a critical piece of back story for the last third of the book. You can really build tension that way.

  3. Betsy, Thank you for sharing your thoughts!! It's great to hear about backstory from a reader's perspective! :-)

    And Richard, GREAT point about saving a critical piece of information! You're right about that helping to build tension! I think that takes some skill in being able to withhold that info. without it coming across as anti-climatic when we finally do reveal the backstory. We have to learn how to drop in hints without giving it all away or making it confusing for our readers.

  4. What a cool visual! I've never heard of the iceberg analogy before reading your post. I love the photo.

    For me, no matter how much I think I've gotten to know my characters ahead of time, I've found that I don't truly *know* them until I take them through the story via the first draft. It's as if they're a cloudy, fuzzy mirage when I create their backgrounds, but only when I begin to put them into scenes, and actually write them out, do they come into focus. Then, after the first draft, I sit on it a while and more bits and pieces and layers come to me. I keep index cards handy when new information reveals itself.

    I'm willing to bet too much backstory is a problem most newbies (me) have. Personally, as a reader, I love when I have to work hard at putting the pieces together, rather than having it all laid out.

    Nice post.


  5. Not surprisingly, the same points you make about backstory in fiction apply to memoir. This is not a concept often discussed in memoir circles, but your post shines a laser beam on it. I think we are just using different terms, but one of the major benefits of writing memoir is that it forces us to untangle our personal backstories, thus finding life more satisfying, rich and meaningful. Thanks for this bonus dividend you probably had no idea you were delivering.

  6. I was fascinated by your character worksheet. I use something similar, but more brief.

    I think readers want to know enough about a character to make them care and to make that character's actions make sense by context.

  7. Good post Jody - I've been working with this challenge lately as I revise my first novel draft. Initially, there was so much backstory that I found it slowed down my scenes to the point of distraction. I've learned to cut back paragraphs to a few sentences - make every word count. I still believe backstory is essential for writers to understand their characters but as you said, less is required for the reader's interest.

  8. Good morning, everyone! Thanks for sharing your opinions! I'm always curious how others handle backstory!

    Sharon, I appreciate your perspective on memoirs. I think you're so right. No matter the type of writing, we don't want to overwhelm our readers with details. We want to keep it crisp and fresh and moving.

  9. Very nice post, Jody! I'm writing a story now in which back story is very important to what drives my character, but not important to the forward motion of the plot, so it's actually a lot of fun deciding just which parts of my MC's back story to reveal and when. I'm learning that the reader doesn't need to know everything I know. If I choose just the right piece of information to give my reader, he/she will gain enough knowledge to have a little of the sympathy factor toward the MC.

    You've got me thinking today. Thanks, Jody.

  10. This backstory question has always bothered me. I understand the point of getting to the action as quickly as possible, but I've enjoyed so many books where the author starts out with a significant amount of backstory I don't know what to think. The first Harry Potter book began with quite a bit of backstory and it was successful. Was it because Rowling wrote the backstory in an entertaining fashion, or because it was MG, where perhaps these rules do not apply, or what? I'm still confused.

  11. Hi Ken,

    Of course STORY always trumps everything. If a writer has an incredibly unique, gripping, and saleable story, readers can forgive some of the backstory dumps that may creep in. And I suppose if the backstory is apart of the "story voice" and is told in an entertaining fashion, then we can also tolerate it better.

    We can probably also look to classics and find a lot of backstory in the first chapters. And while they're classics, they're also difficult for the average modern reader to digest.

    Therefore, I think the majority of us simply can't afford to start with a significant amount of backstory and hope to keep our reader's attention. I personally believe we have to look at the overall patterns of what makes most fiction commercially viable, but then also write from the heart.

  12. Back story dumps don't bother me because I'm an information person, always seeking out more and more. I love to read nonfiction for the same reason. I also appreciate background that doesn't necessarily move the book along, but is simply fascinating, curious, or beautiful. On the other hand, though, I can tell the difference between well-written back story and badly-written back story. If it's not done seamlessly, it jars me. It's like your first commenter said--it must be woven into the fabric of the novel.

  13. Great post Jody. I've referred several people to your blog just because of that character worksheet. It's an amazing tool within and even better writing source, your blog. However, here is my problem I start out doing the character stuff and then get all excited and then I end up just writing without finishing the worksheet. LOL I'm a panster with intentions to be a planner.

  14. Great breakdown. When I first started writing I began with prologues to set up the story. Then pretty much all of my readers actually said they never read the prologues. So I asked myself why is it necessary? It is so much more relevant and engrossing if those tidbits are revealed throughout the story. Info-dumping is never good, especially when today's attention spans are so short.

  15. This is timely as I take another pass at my contracted novella today to try and shave off the last 6,000. I've already hit the delete on a few sentences on the first page of character motivation which could pass as backstory. And I'll be mindful as this today while I'm in the trenches!

  16. Like you, I tend to develop very elaborate backstories for my characters, but do not use all of this information, I liked your reference to acting. since I am also a playwright and director, this is exactly what an actor should do in order to 'find' their character. it's all about motivation. If we want our characters to come across as beleivable and authentic, we must know something of their history, BUT there is nothing worse (when reading) than getting bombarded with all the details. Boring! Great post, Jody.

  17. Where did I read wait until page 50to introduce backstory. Hmm. I'll be thinking on that one.

    I'm writing a post for the Alley on this tomorrow. Heck maybe I'll just link here. (No worries, Alley folk, I will write the post.)

    One of my favorite things about writing is getting to know my characters. I take months before I even write my first word. Also helps with where to start the work.

    ~ Wendy

  18. Thanks for your response, Jody. I understand your point about it being all about writing a great story, but as a first time writer, I'm concerned about the process of querying agents. If an agent sees backstory at the beginning, will they stop reading before they even get to the main part? Just wondering how things are done these days.

  19. Jody,

    I agree, we don't need backstory as often as we think. I love the idea of weaving in details about a character throughout the story, in a subtle yet specific way that reveals their personality. And, saving backstory for those "life-shaping events," as you say, helps prevent us from overusing that technique.

  20. As always Jody, your advice is well worth the time to read, and review. This one in particular helped me answer a few questions I already had about backstory. I know in my own work so far I have added a considerable amount of backstory, but when I'm done with it, I have a clearer picture of what should stay and what should go.
    Another piece of advice that I had given to me long ago was that, "the parts you must cut are never really gone, just put away for later use elsewhere".
    For now, I'm just having fun putting it all out there, though once I'm through and the story is complete, the time will come for a 'leaner' tale!
    Thank you too for the character sketch worksheets. Great details to consider before you begin any story!

  21. This was a wonderful post! As a reader, I don't like feeling like I'm ready back-story. However, I do find myself wondering a lot about it...I love it when authors weave in enough that I don't wonder. I felt like Despicable Me left a lot of un-answered questions, but I watched it expecting a story. If I had been expecting a comedy show I would have been perfectly happy, but that's just me. ;)


  22. Hi Everyone! Thanks for adding your insights into the conversation today! I learn so much every day from all of your comments!

  23. I'm facing this very issue right now in my WIP. Ugh. Like you said, there's multiple ways to approach backstory; but I love your suggestions. Thank you for sharing your experience! :)

  24. Ken asked: "If an agent sees backstory at the beginning, will they stop reading before they even get to the main part? Just wondering how things are done these days."

    My Answer: Another great question today, Ken! If the story is gripping enough and well-told, I don't think backstory will stop an agent or publisher. They may ask you to cut it during an edit, but if you capture them with your story, they can overlook some of the other issues that may need revising.

    However, often, backstory dumps in the first chapter are the signs of an amatuer writer. I'm currently judging a national fiction-writing contest for unpublished writers. When I see backstory dumps in an entry, I usually end up seeing other story-problems too.

    In other words, I think agents will be able to tell overall if your writing skills are strong enough and your story good enough, no matter how much or how little backstory you include.

  25. Wow--that question stuck with you for a while! And a fantastic post---backstory isn't a topic lots of people are willing to tackle, because it is so subjective.

    I'm always interested to find out how other authors do it, because I've had to figure out how to do it in books that are part of a series but basically stand-alones as well as a series that's a continuing story throughout all three books.

    I'm one of those authors who needs to know as much as possible about my characters before I sit down to write---otherwise I find myself working out the characters' backstories on the page---and I know that doesn't make for interesting reading.

    I can't remember off the top of my head if it was Don Maass or Sol Stein who wrote that backstory is more interesting to the writer than to the reader. That's always top of mind for me when I re-read my manuscript in the revision process. That and determining if I'm revealing info about the characters too early . . . I like stringing my readers along. :-)

  26. Yet another great and timely post. I've been working on a new draft of my novel with an eye for deeper character development and have learned so much about my characters. I learned my MC is struggling to recreate for himself the stable home he grew up in, now that his dad has Alzheimer's. I learned that he didn't move to Indiana until the 5th grade--I never knew that! I understand him so much more now, and I thought I had a good beat on him already.

    I'm off to check out your character chart!

  27. Jody, I strongly agree with your iceberg theory. When reading a novel, I love for little details to drip, drip, drip through the story. As for my own writing, I've learned not to do an info dump, and I hope I'm dripping well too!

  28. When I started planning my novel, I thought a lot about what I like in my fiction entertainment (tv and movies in addition to books). And one of the things I put on the list is complex, slowly revealed backstory. I love characters that clearly have something going on under the surface, along with a writer who can reveal that in a skillful way.

  29. When I read the blog, I felt that I actually did something right. I thank you for posting this, as I have always worried whether I have put enough details of my MC's past life in. I have woven it through the story, only a glimpse in the first chapter; just enough, as you say, for the reader to get an understanding of why my character is, the way she is.
    Brilliant post! Thank you so much!

  30. Thank you for the brilliant post Jody. I don't know whether it is a wise thing to do or not but I have pushed the back story that appeared in my first chapter to the third chapter.

  31. The Graces books, readers know a lot about VK, and I hope it is weaved in and through the books. I can see with the first book where I could have left out even more words.

    However, with Sweetie, I deleted deleted deleted and left a lot to mystery and it worked better than if I'd have kept in those chapters explaining a lot about Melissa. It was a risk, but it paid off.

    Always wonderful posts here that I enjoy!

  32. Wow, sometimes I love writing the back story more than the book! I fall madly in love with my characters and want to discover everything I can about them. Once I get into the groove of writing his or her back story, the character takes over and leads me.

    The only trouble is when I find juicy tidbits in the back story, I'm desperate to put them into the novel and they don't always fit!

  33. I am a huge fan of backstory and generally keep two documents up at once. One is to keep adding to the character rap sheet and the other is for the project itself. Works for me! Great post, Jody :)

  34. Hi Jody! I completely agree on the little by little method of sharing the MC's backstory. As a reader, I like being kept in the dark about the character because it makes the "reveal" at the end much more climatic.

    Thanks for sharing a great post!

  35. Your post really helped me to understand this.It has great details and yet it is easy to understand.That's what i was looking for.I will definitely share it with others.Thanks for sharing.


© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!