Writing Advice: Beware Backstory


All good characters have a rich, storied background. But we usually don’t read those backgrounds. Backstory is a great thing to develop, but it should not appear in the final product. Of course, this can be difficult to do. It’s tempting to pad your manuscript with information about the character’s past because it adds more words and helps you better understand your characters. But that backstory stuff should be worked out before you even start writing. Developing all of that beforehand means you’ll be better equipped to write about your characters and you won’t be as tempted to include backstory in your novel.

In her post about the 10 Writing Mistakes That Will Kill Your First Chapter, author Marcy Kennedy put “backstory” at number seven. She says, “Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.”

So, how can backstory be merely “hinted at”? It can be something as simple as a character talking to their friend and mentioning something that happened in the past. This can be done pretty smoothly, especially if the friend has known your character for a long time and can easily reference the past. Another way to achieve this is to have a present-day story element connect to something in the past. That way, the character’s past is being brought up, but in a way that advances your story forward and continues the action.

A good rule to remember and follow is that backstory is for the planning stage and action is for the writing stage. In NaNo-speak, that would mean that October is for backstory and November is for writing action. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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