04 August 2013

Backstory - What It Is And Why We Use It

Have you ever read a book that opened with backstory?  What?! You don't know what backstory is? Backstory is anything and everything which happened to a fictional character before the start of the current story.  It's what gives a character depth. Example:

Julia grew up in the mid-western town of Belleville, Texas, where her parents owned a farm. She woke every morning since the age of ten and fed the chickens, milked the cows, and gathered the eggs.

You're probably thinking exactly what I would be thinking if I were reading that opening chapter. "Who is Julia and why do I care that she grew up on a farm?"

This is why backstory should be scaled back in the beginning. Let me know what the story is about first. Get me involved, then tell me a little about this character's backstory and why it fits when the time is right. When you start off with backstory,  I'm thinking, "Oh, great. Now I have to remember something boring. What if I forget this later on? This is too much work!"

Call me a lazy reader if you want, but that's exactly what I am. I had to read in college because I needed to learn in order to get a great G.P.A. Likewise, I read at work because I get paid to do so. 

When I want to read for enjoyment and entertainment, I purchase a book. For my money, I shouldn't have to make my brain work so hard. The story should unfold without any work on my part. Agreed?

Providing birth into your story for your protagonist is not the purpose of backstory. You don’t have to introduce your characters up front. Eventually, we'll want to know more about them, but not until it's time. Get your story started first!

The purpose of backstory is: 
  • To show character motivation
  • To build the reader/character relationship
  • To educate the reader on why this story exists 

I attended a session at the TWA conference and book festival this past May and the presenters, Jamie Morris and Julie Compton, shared with us the seven ways you can introduce backstory. I’m providing samples from my own novel, Precinct 9, to show where each purpose is fulfilled.


The rubble from the blast had buried him, leaving only his head and right arm exposed. Kelly had held his hand for hours until the heavy equipment operators arrived. There wasn’t enough time to get him out from under all the concrete boulders and metal beams. Two months after the explosion, she received an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. They would have been discharged together on the same day.


“What about her father? Where is he?” The words left her lips. He could answer or not, it’s just passing time. 

“Killed in Afghanistan, a year before.” 

When the words sunk in, Kelly looked up and away from the ice cubes dancing in her glass. It was a slap so hard she thought she’d not be able to speak again. She placed the drink onto the captain’s desk. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. I wouldn’t have asked.” What else could she say? Her throat constricted and she thought better of saying anything more, but she did. “I didn’t know.” 

“Goes without saying, Kelly.” Hearing her name come from his lips unnerved her. Up until then it was either Cooper or Sergeant Cooper.  

He continued on as if cued by some unknown force, “Elizabeth was a single mother for over two years. When I came back without him, I had to fill that role.” 

“You were there?” She asked, but it was more an affirmation. Word from other officers was he’d served in Afghanistan, but nobody was certain when or why he left the military.

“I was.” Captain Elliot pulled the bottle to his lips and took in two swallows of the golden brown liquid. 

Uneasiness swept over Kelly when she realized how late it had gotten. “It’s after midnight, Captain. Let me drive you home.


The innocence played out and the pit of her stomach ached. Horrors lurked everywhere in the world today and these children were unaware. They were protected from it. Or did it simply hide for now? Kelly remembered the days where there were no fears; evil did not exist.


Kelly launched a photo attachment from one message with a subject line “Panama City Beach, Baby!” Two young girls on a beach with the ocean as a backdrop peered back at her sporting peace signs and bright smiles. The message: Wish you were here! The date of the email, two days before Victoria’s murder.


Kelly drove home with the Captain’s brief on her mind. She imagined his commanding presence filling a small room full of eager men. “Attention, officers…meet your new Lieutenant.” When the new lieutenant entered the room, it was the captain’s date from earlier this evening, wearing the same provocative red dress. 

A blaring horn pulled Kelly out of her trance, two bright lights heading toward her.

Allusions and Associations

When she secured the door after stepping into her Jeep, she pounded the top of the wheel with her closed fists and placed her head on top of her tensed knuckles. She waited for David’s voice in her head. The red-head master of disaster he’d called her. It was because she was stubborn, he’d said. The only thing that came were her stupid, stupid tears.

The “invisible” 7th method

“My niece.” He handed Kelly a small glass filled with ice and poured two ounces of Bourbon into it.

She accepted knowing she wouldn’t drink it. “Thank you.” She picked up the small, pewter frame. “She’s adorable.”

How do you deliver your backstory? Do you sprinkle it in when needed, or do you provide an entire chapter to bring the reader up to speed? I prefer the former. Which do you prefer to read?

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