How to Write Backstory: When & How Much to Reveal

Writing Backstory

Writing Backstory

Backstory is important because it tells you, the writer, what your characters have been through before you start your story. It also helps to inform how your characters will handle and react to problems when they pop up in your book. In order to write your novel, you need to know everything there is to know about each of your characters. You need to know about their secrets, their experiences, and every major defining moment they’ve had in their lives. You also need to know just as much about the world you’ve created.

Most of these details are fascinating from a character and world building standpoint. They also play a large role in how you as a writer will approach your work. However, most of those details don’t play a direct role in the story. Which means if you share too much backstory with your reader, they’ll likely end up bogged down, overloaded, and lost.

It can be hard to strike a balance between moving your story forward and filling your readers in on what’s happened in the past. Because of that, we need to be selective in what we share and when we share it. To help with that, here are the six guidelines I use when including backstory in my books.

At the start of the book, only reveal the essentials

For me, the beginning is the trickiest part of any book with regard to backstory. You often need a decent amount of backstory to get readers into your novel. They need to know who your character is, what they’re life’s like when we meet them, and what world we’re entering. It may be tempting to get all of this info to your readers as fast as possible, but don’t do it! That’s info dumping and it’s generally something you want to avoid. If you throw too much information at your readers too fast, you’ll create a lot of confusion for them. It also tends to make your book uninteresting because you’re doing an awful lot of telling, which makes it hard for your readers to experience your novel. And if they’re either confused or disinterested, they’re likely to close your book and never return.

Instead, take a minute to consider the absolute essentials a person would need to know to get your story going and understand what’s happening in the opening scene. When in doubt, included even less backstory than you think you may need. Then ask an early reader for feedback. If they’re confused because they don’t have enough info, you can add more backstory to address their specific concerns. In my experience, it can be hard for a reader to tell you what information they don’t need if you’ve given them too much. All they know is that it’s too much and they’re overwhelmed. But if readers are confused because they’re lacking information, they can typically ask more specific guiding questions. This way you can be sure that what you’re including is what’s needed and no more.

Going forward, only reveal info if/when it plays a role

Now that you’ve got your story off the ground, there’s probably plenty more you need or want to convey to the reader. But you still need to be careful not to overwhelm them and not to lead them too far away from your main plot. To help with that, I suggest using the same principle we talked about in the first point; only give your reader what they absolutely need to know when they absolutely need to know it.

For example, let’s say your book has a king in it. And the king has a complicated history with your bad guy. You should avoid telling your reader about this complicated history until their history is relevant to the story. If you think it’s best, you can tell your readers early on that a history between the two exists, but you don’t need to share the specifics until your reader needs it. Or if you want it to be a plot twist, you can keep everything from your reader until the big reveal.

Keep it brief

Generally speaking, the less intrusive you are with backstory, the better it will be for your reader. So when you have to give some info, do your best to weave it into the scene or conversation as briefly and simply as you can.

The one time I don’t follow this rule: if/when my characters are talking about their histories to each other. Typically, this acts as a way to both convey the necessary information and as a way for my characters to bond. Others may disagree with me, but this is the one time I’ll personally allow a mini-info dump. This is largely because as a reader, I enjoy reading scenes like this. I like seeing characters either purposefully opening up to each other or being put in situations where they have to confess their pasts in a way that makes them really uncomfortable. In fact, I live for it! So, since it’s the kind of thing I like to read, it’s absolutely the kind of thing I’m going to write–whether I “should” do it this way or not.

Though, just a quick note if you’re going to take this approach. It’s still important to keep the conversation and backstory as relevant to the story as possible. In other words, there needs to be a reason Character A is sharing info with Character B, not just because you want them to share.

If you can’t keep it brief, consider a dream or flashback

Sometimes, there’s too much info to share to keep it brief. In these cases, the best trick to avoid a direct info dump is to actually write the scene as it happened for your characters. You can do this with either a dream or a flashback. I’ve used both of these techniques in my books! They work particularly well if your character is traumatized or haunted by something from their past. It’s also helpful if you’re trying to convey the dynamics of an already established relationship. It’s one thing for your character to say “I have a bad relationship with my cousin.” But it’s another thing entirely to show it.

But again, keep your flashbacks and dreams as short and as focused as possible. Your goal is to enhance your story, not take your readers away from it.

And keep in mind…

None of these tips apply to the first draft. That’s one thing I can’t stress enough on this blog. The first draft should be a hot mess of whatever you need to write to get your story written. If this means you need to spend an entire first chapter writing nothing but info dumping backstory, then do it! That’s part of getting to know your story and your characters. You can go back and fix the info dump in revision.

I hope this helps you work your backstory into your novel!

Now it’s your turn: How much backstory do you usually reveal? Tell me about it in the comments!

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