Sunday, November 6, 2011


While I was writing the first and second drafts of my WIP, I was sure I needed to open with a prologue scene that showed my heroine’s childhood. I felt the reader needed this information to empathize with her present situation. But I’ve been learning some rules:

Backstory belongs only where it explains what’s important for the reader to know at that moment. In other words, sparingly and so it doesn’t interrupt the pace of the story.
The longer essential information is withheld, the better. It’s best to reveal backstory before the midpoint. Never insert at the end; your ending will seem contrived.
Don’t repeat backstory information. Readers have good memories.
Backstory can be presented as action. It can be incorporated as dialogue, or revealed through short inner thoughts. Or a combination of these.
If you need a flashback, write it as a blow-by-blow action sequence that ends in disaster for your main character.

I have deleted my opening chapter and the first half of chapter 2. As I edit, I’m watching for repetitious backstory information.
I have three backstory passages. One is part of an action scene. The second is a short, essential nightmare. The third is draft 2’s version of my original prologue. I love this scene—it is where I defined my heroine, but I’m now sure it doesn’t serve the story.


  1. Figuring out where to start a story and how much of the characters' backgrounds to reveal at any given time is always tricky.

    I'm like you. I usually need several drafts to get it right. And it's hard sometimes to get rid of parts of the story you love. My hope is to always find a more appropriate place for them somewhere.

  2. Films can have director's cuts. Wouldn't it be fun to have a writer's cut version of a book.

  3. It definitely requires real skill to know how much backstory is necessary and when and how to include it. I think sometimes we, as writers, want to include too much back story (to 'explain' our characters) when, in fact, our readers only want the basics We need to give them credit for reading between the lines.
    If the main characters are meeting for the first time, then I think a minimum of backstory for them suffices, simply to show some major event which might have influenced their current state of mind.
    If, however, they have a 'past' and are meeting again some years later, it gets much trickier. Do we need a flashback to show what went wrong between them? Or do we show their thoughts about what went wrong?
    Good topic for the 'B' post, Ana. It raises all kind of issues.

  4. Ana...a 'writer's cut' would be a great idea for a book. Or something like the special features on a DVD.

  5. Really interesting post, Ana, and lots of food for thought! Thank you.

  6. We all have a past, which shaped our present. People who want to know each other spend hours sharing their personal histories. As writers, we have to create well-rounded characters--people with a past that shaped their presents--without the grace of backstory time.
    It's a huge challenge.

  7. Great post, Ana! I always struggle with this too. For my last book, I let the reader in on the backstory in dribs and drabs, which I think worked. For my newest release, I did use a prologue, because I felt it was essential for the reader to understand one key element of the heroine's character. And then, for chapter 1, I repeated the same words I used in the description, but led it in a totally different direction, which was a fun way of playing with language and imagery. Hopefully it worked. For my WIP, which I may have mentioned needs LOTS of editing ;), again, I'm filling in backstory only where needed. We'll see!