Baby Got Backstory Using Backstory in Your Writing

Hi, welcome to Write Better Now, a podcast of quick, weekly writing tips meant to help you become a better writer. We’re your hosts with NYT bestselling author Carrie Jones and copyeditor extraordinaire Shaun Farrar. Thank you for joining us.


A long time ago we talked about backstory on our podcast, DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE, but we thought it would be pretty helpful to quickly talk about it here on WRITE BETTER NOW.


Hey baby, what’s your backstory?

It’s that I married you, honey.

Hey baby, what’s your backstory?

It should be a pick-up line at a bar, yet it somehow is not a pick-up line at any bar that I know of except maybe in a New Yorker cartoon or a bar in a town where there’s one of those MFA programs in writing literature for literary people doing literary things.

Anyway, it’s a term writers throw around all the time and it is basically just how we imagine our characters’ lives went before they are in the actual story that we’re writing.

But basically it’s the formative experiences that make your character who they are today in the story of your novel or poem or essay or short story.

I know! How can you imagine that your character had a life before your story? It’s like imagining your spouse had a life before you that wasn’t totally centered around you. Us narcissists have a hard time with that.

Do you know, in nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important.…

Steven Moffat, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

According to a post on https://www.nownovel.com/blog/talking-character-backstory/

There are three uses of backstory.

  1. Developing the understanding of the characters. Like if your dad died of a heart attack in front of you and you couldn’t save him, then your character might have a savior complex. It helps the reader understand your characters’ motivations.
  2. It can heighten the stakes and the suspense. You were once addicted to dating cops. Cops were always bad for you. Will you date this one? NO! YOU MUST NOT.
  3. It makes it real damn it. By the time, you make it into a book, you’re not going to be a blank slate, born out of Zeus’ head or a clamshell fully formed on page 1. We all have prologues.

Here’s a nice link about it for those of you who read this on Carrie’s blog.

Standout asks how much backstory does a story need and answers its own question pretty simply:

If judged solely on complexity, the answer to ‘how much backstory should I include?’ would be ‘enough to pay for the reader’s efforts,’ however you also need to consider immersion.

Standout (source above)

Ah. Okay?

Here is our advice:

  • Don’t be fake. Don’t be pretend. We all know people who show up at a party, engage in small talk about absolutely nothing other than the weather, the traffic, where they work. There is no underlayment. It’s like they are a rug thrown on the floor, but if you touch that rug it will just slip away because there’s nothing holding it there.

Do not let your characters be rugs.

Ground those suckers with nails and staples if you have to. ModPodge them to the floor, give them a life before you.

  • Don’t tell us everything about them. We do not know that they prefer Aquafina to Poland Spring water or that they had an ingrown toenail when they were twenty-four any more than you want to know about the guy at the party’s hemorrhoid treatment unless it’s really good. Be sparing. Make it relevant to who that character is now and what’s going on in the story.
  • Don’t lump all that back story together in paragraph after paragraph of exposition. That makes the forward motion of the story disappear.
  • If you can SHOW the backstory via dialogue or flashback (short ones), it’s so much better than TELLING it in a big, ugly paragraph.
  • Mine your characters experiences and memories and mementos from those of yourself, famous people, friends, anecdotes.

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.

Stephen King

Writing Tip of the Pod All Condensed

Find the balance in your backstory and your life. Backstory is important, but it shouldn’t take over the current story


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These podcasts and more writing tips are at Carrie’s website, carriejonesbooks.blog. There’s also a donation button there. Even a dollar inspires a happy dance in us, so thank you for your support.

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