Using Backstory Effectively

by Jason Black

In my last article I talked about how the careless inclusion of backstory information can ruin the presentation of otherwise compelling characters.  This month is about strategies through which you can convey a character’s background without those problems.  Best of all, while poor application of backstory undermines your story, careful presentation of backstory can actually enhance your story.  Here are four ways to use backstory effectively:

Use it to raise questions.

A major issue with backstory is that it often answers too many questions about your characters, too soon. A much better strategy is to use unexplained backstory to raise questions instead.  Imagine if your opening scene showed your character going through airport security with a locked metal briefcase.  The security people require her to open it. She does, revealing a dozen souvenir spoons, the kind you get at tourist traps with illustrations of places you’ve been, all nestled securely in a protective foam lining.  You inevitably raise a question in the reader’s mind: Why are these spoons so special to her? Now, don’t explain it.  What does that do the reader’s curiosity?  Instead of explaining, perhaps you show her at home adding these new spoons to her collection: Thousands of spoons, all in neat rows upon shelves, occupying two full rooms of her house.

There has to be some interesting backstory there, and readers will want to know what it is.  Aren’t you curious? Are you reading on through this article to find out?  The trick is not to pull the trigger too soon.  Having raised the question in the reader’s mind, you have to let it fester for a while.  You need to show some scenes where that backstory-related behavior plays a role.  Without seeing the behavior in action, the eventual revelation of the backstory won’t carry any emotional weight.

Use it to create conflicts.

Now that you’ve got the reader wondering why our heroine is a souvenir spoon freak, heighten the drama a bit by creating a conflict around this behavior.  What if she skips out on a friend’s 40th birthday party because she saw in the paper that there were going to be three estate sales in her town that day, so she opted to go spoon hunting instead?  The friend could well end up feeling very offended, thus creating a rift in the friendship.  And if these two friends happen to work together—perhaps they own and operate a small flower shop—that could create very real problems in the business.

That’s an example of finding a way to intertwine your character’s backstory elements with your story’s plot elements. Having used the behavior to create a conflict, and having let curiosity fester for a while, now is a good time to let readers in on the backstory.

Make it emotional.

Maybe the heroine’s father travelled a lot on business and always brought her spoons from wherever he had been.  When she missed him, she would play with the spoons.  Now that he has passed away, finding new spoons keeps him alive to her.  This works because it created a difficult choice for her.  If the spoon collecting hobby was meaningless to her, it would be difficult to see why she would blow off her friend’s birthday party in the first place.

To be compelling, that choice needs to be a hard one, and yet, spoon hunting must fulfill such a powerful emotional need for her that she did it anyway. Drama comes from forcing her to choose between something that is important to her alone and something that is important to her and her friend.  Look for those conflicts, but remember that the conflicts have to have credible emotional stakes attached to them or they’ll fall flat.

Support it early.

I particularly want to stress this, because getting it wrong can ruin a whole book. Suppose you would like an important plot point to hinge on the heroine’s spoon collecting habit.  Perhaps her friend’s dream is to appear on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and some time after the birthday party blow-off, she gets selected as a contestant.  Her friend gets all the way to the $100,000 question, but is then stymied by “Where is the last resting place of Confederate General Robert E. Lee?”  The friend uses a lifeline to call your protagonist.  She listens to the question and says, “Oh, wait, it’s on one of my spoons!”  She runs with her cordless phone into one of her collection rooms, finds the spoon in question, and with no time to spare blurts out “Lexington, Virginia!”  You’ve tied the backstory to the plot, and doing so have also given the friend a reason to forgive the whole birthday party blow-off too. Thank goodness for those spoons!

But this only works if you have spent sufficient effort ahead of time to establish the heroine’s spoon habit.  If you had said nothing about souvenir spoons prior to the game show scene, the scene would seem bizarre and unmotivated.  To wait so long before revealing that element of your heroine’s life would be a terrible rabbit-out-of-a-hat solution, and any trust the reader has in you to tell a good story is wiped out.

But if you’ve built it up ahead of time with padded briefcases and skipped birthdays, if you’ve connected it emotionally to the character and put it in dramatic conflict with the plot, then the reader is primed to accept that she would indeed have a Robert E. Lee spoon, and would know her collection well enough to find it quickly. Problem solved. Backstory is a great way to establish important skills or pieces of information that characters will need in order to overcome the plot’s obstacles, but only if you do a good job of showing them to the reader before they are necessary to the plot.

Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at

Jason BlackComment