Friday, April 29, 2011

Effective Ways to Add Backstory

As writers we all know the importance of Backstory. If done properly backstory can  enrich the story, but an overload of it can detract from the main plot. Backstory is like adding salt to a dish. Too much of it and the dish gets spoilt: the excess salt suppresses all other flavours, and  too little of salt can do the opposite: no flavour is heightened, the feeling one is left with is that the dish lacked the most vital ingredient. 

Why  do we use backstory? Because the reader needs to know significant/important  things about our character. Why has the character turned bitter, lost his/her will to live, why is he/she over suspicious, why do they have health problems, or don’t trust anyone? 

I love adding backstory. I have realized there are many ways to add backstory. I have adopted few of them in my WIP. Here they are:

Via Dialogues. The backstory can make its introduction in the course of conversations. Readers seldom get bored with conversations.

Through short and succinct past visits which can be achieved through what I call- objects that trigger memory prompts. The character chances upon an object from his or her past and it triggers a stream of memory or backstory  associated with it.

Through the via via route. A character chances upon a person or object that acts as a trigger for  more memories. I would call this  Memory Association, associating one thing with another.

Reminicising and nostalgia is another way of adding backstory. This can be achieved by going over past events in a character’s head.

Flashback. This often over used technique should be used sparingly as it requires active use of the passive voice which can slow down the pace of a story.

Using nature, seasons and weather as stimulus. A rainy day can trigger memories of another rainy day, a tree or the chirping of birds can be a backdrop for more backstory.

Taking the Anniversary route. Most people remember the dates when certain incidents  happened in their lives. These events or incidents’ anniversaries can be triggers for backstory associated with them.

I sometimes struggle with adding backstory. Either I add too much, or too little. I am trying to find a balance that will  keep the reader interest alive and at the same time not weigh the story down.

How do you all add backstory? How much do you think is too much? How much do you think a reader needs to know? What do you do to consciously avoid an excess of backstory? Please share your  views and techniques with us. We  can learn and improve from your method.

Picture Credit and Copyright Melissa Crytzer Fry


  1. Awesome post, Rachna. Liked all the ideas, will try to use them when I write. Thanks for sharing.

  2. like always an informative post.. :)

  3. I always start by giving it too much emphasis (WHOLE CHAPTERS EVEN) and then cut and slash as I'm revising. I think (hope) the planning (the most I have EVER done in my whole wide life) that I am doing for my next wip will help me nail the difference between backstory and story.

  4. I've heard it said that the author needs to know alot more backstory than the reader and that the reader needs to know the absolute minimum to keep the action moving. It's a tuffy!:O)

  5. Great ideas here Rachna. I have a whole lot of ideas for creating backstory but had not thought of so many ways to integrate them.
    I am using a time travel episode in Guardian Cats to illustrate the backstory. Very handy and fun method if you are writing in fantasy mode.

  6. Hi, Rachna!
    I found your blog through Lynda's W.I.P. blog. You've made some excellent suggestions for backstory. I tend to follow the memory route. I need to mix it up more.

    Come visit me at
    When I get follower 200, I'll be launching a Celebration Blogfest.

  7. @ Seema and Rachit ...thanks.

    @ Michele....I too have a whole lot of chapters with backstory, which I end up deleting as the edits and rewrites progress.

    @ Madeleine....even with so much advice, I still manage to write loads of backstory. After several readings, I end up realizing its not needed, especially when I have to bring the word count down, or when my editor points it out.

    @ Rahma, your time travel episode sounds interesting.

    @ Zan...pleased to meet you. Thanks for the follow. I too use the memory route, but in my current WIP, I have tried to follow the association route. Will hop over to your blog now.

  8. Great list, Rachna.

    I remember learning this a long time ago and I keep it on my desk. I can't remember who I learned it from.

    The best way to handle back story is to chop it into very small bits and sprinkle it through chapters three through about seven, refusing to tell readers anything about the character's history if they don't need to know it. Of course, this is for children's books. Have a great weekend. :-)

  9. I think it's also important to know far more about our characters than will ever be actually stated to the reader, because that we we'll be more into our MC's head and able to understand her motives better. I'm testing this theory, anyway, as I begin the background prep for my next book :-)

  10. There's an Award for you on my blog :O)

  11. Hi Rachna…Wonderful article, so many great questions. ☺
    Love back-story, when you start to stray from the characters main general make-up, the back-story becomes the map. One method I’ve been doing along the lines of Memory Association would be integrating parts of a back-story into the character’s description by attaching it to a permanent habit and appearance, which constantly bring the main event back. It’s true that too much can affect the spontaneous flow. The rest are just great questions for me to think about..:)

  12. Hi, Rachna, I like your list, especially the "memory prompt". I struggle too, with the "too much" or "too little" issue. Don't have the magic balance yet. :-)

  13. As always, a thought-provoking post and full of great advice. Thank you!

  14. Oooh, I'm so struggling with this while I'm revamping my opening. Like most writers, it's quite possible I opened the story too far forward of the real plot. I've fast-forwarded to right before the battle scene, but I do still need to add just enough "salt" to have the reader know enough to like my mc. How much salt is an issue I still toil over. I've used word/association through dialogue for the most part, (there's some one-sentence weather-related stuff) but that's more for the sake of speed in this situation. I use two dream sequences to drop in backstory/character development later on. I've also got a whole chapter of what you called "Memory Association" where a character recalls when her life was threatened at the birth of her third son. She goes back and forth between how her husband saved her and her son because now, she and her son are in danger from the enemy and she believes they've already killed her husband. (A whole chapter of flashback/memory association sounds so dull, but it's not because it's all about the threat to their lives. It's actually one of the best scenes. LOL)

  15. I don't have a problem with backstory as long as it's woven into the story in bits and it's not all dumped at the beginning of a novel.

  16. Some very good ideas and strategies here! I agree, backstory gives shape to the character, and needs to be used with a light, careful touch. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  17. Love this! Backstory is tricky, but these tips are effective. I attended a writer's conference years ago where Gayle Roper discussed backstory. It really stuck with me. Appreciate the info, Rachna!

  18. Great post! I avoid backstory myself, although used sparingly I think it's fine. It's just easy to pull a reader out of the story with too much of it.