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Make backstory work for you by Kandy Shepherd

To new writers, backstory is the Big Bad Wolf everyone is warned to avoid at all costs. There’s a little more to it than that, as multi-published author KANDY SHEPHERD [1] explains.

When writing romance, we’re often encouraged to get the heroine and hero together on the page as soon as possible: the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence of your story. It seems the sooner the characters meet each other the better—especially if you’re writing novels with a short word count such as category romance.

KandyShepherd_Castaway_Bride_800px [2]

While plunging straight into that “first meet” can hook and intrigue readers, it also introduces them to characters who are strangers. It’s not easy to care about people we don’t know, but it’s getting emotionally engaged with our hero and heroine that keeps readers turning the pages.

Readers need to know and understand our characters. To root for them, readers need to know what makes characters tick. What happened in the past can explain how characters behave and react to other characters—be they the hero or the villain.

This is where “backstory” comes in. You can count as backstory pretty well anything that happened to your characters before the moment you chose to start their story—their childhood, education, dating history, triumphs and tragedies.

Characters need a backstory—it’s what gives them the motivation, goals and potential for conflict that will drive your story forward. Everything that happened to the character before the story explains why characters do what they do. In a romance, the hero or heroine’s backstory can really help explain why they spend so many pages resisting someone who is so obviously perfect for them!

As the author, you need to know all that backstory —your readers only need to know enough of it for them to make sense of your plot, setting and characters.

The challenge as a writer is to introduce backstory without halting the forward momentum of your story. You only include what strengthens and supports your main narrative or “front story”. Not big, unsubtle chunks of explanation.

When I ran a manuscript assessment service for romance writers some years ago, one of the most common problems was the writer had started the story in the wrong place. They’d start with pages and pages of the backstory giving detailed descriptions of what had happened in the characters’ pasts rather than what was driving them in the present. By the time a reader waded through all the detail that didn’t really relate to the story, she was likely to have yawned and stopped turning the pages.

So how to work with backstory without resorting to the dreaded “info dump”, that is, dumping information on the page in indigestible chunks? Fact is, backstory badly handled can be boring and pull your reader right out of your story.

Effectively done, backstory can illuminate strengths and weaknesses of your characters; contrast between the past and the present; and show growth and change. In a romance, it can reveal past fears that influence present behaviour and form the barriers that stop your characters from falling in love. Backstory can heighten tension and raise dilemmas characters need to work toward solving.

There’s a balance, though. Don’t be so wary of info-dumping you don’t give enough detail for your readers to know the how and why of the characters and their stories. My first book for Harlequin Romance The Summer They Never Forgot (February 2014) is a reunion story, a first for me. My editor asked me to show more of the characters’ backstories, to take the readers back to their past to experience how the hero and heroine first fell in love. And I’d been so careful to prune backstory to a minimum!

You need to ensure you include enough about your characters’ backgrounds so the reader can quickly understand them and they way they behave. In The Summer They Never Forgot the hero is so emotionally scarred from tragic loss he has put up seemingly insurmountable barriers to letting himself risk love again. I had to give the reader and the heroine the details of what had happened to Ben so they understood what makes him behave the way he does. In my next book for Harlequin, The Tycoon and the Wedding Planner (July 2014), the heroine has some complex issues stemming from her past that are gradually revealed through the story so readers understand just what is stopping Kate from grasping her chance for happiness.

Tycoon and Wedding Planner [3]

Backstory provides a window into the characters’ pasts. How often and how wide to open that window? How do you know what to leave in, what to leave out and how to actually present it on the pages? There are several techniques you can use either alone or in combination.

Drip feed

Perhaps the most effective way of introducing backstory is to weave it through your story in subtle, small bites as the story requires. It’s the big picture that you break down into a lot of little screen grabs.

You can manipulate as much or as little about the character you want to reveal. The carefully placed sentence here and there leads to a gradual exposition of the backstory. I like to think of it as seasoning your story like you would season a recipe. You have a shaker full of spice that is the backstory. Sprinkle it judiciously as flavouring through your story as needed. A sentence here, a succinct paragraph there. Be aware you’ll probably have some spice left in the shaker at the end—you always need to know more about your characters’ pasts than your readers do.


There is some debate about whether a prologue is ever necessary—it’s up to you to decide whether the information in the prologue might be better woven through the story or written as the first chapter.

A prologue precedes the main body of your story and is pure backstory. It shows a snapshot of a past event that directly relates to the present story. Your prologue can also be an extract from a diary, a letter or a newspaper story. Whatever, it can present vital information that might be too cumbersome to weave into the front story and could actually bog down the action. A succinct prologue can quickly deliver vital information the reader needs to immediately engage with the story.

But any prologue, no matter how skilfully presented, still delays the start of the actual story. So be careful it earns its place on the page.


A flashback plunges your reader right back into the past exactly as it happened. It should strongly impact the front story while being interesting reading in its own right. In a romance, a flashback can show how a past relationship affects the current one. Flashbacks can be very short or entire chapters that alternate past history and present action. Again, flashback has to be used judiciously so as not to pull the reader out of the story. (Or, worse, make them decide the backstory is more interesting that the frontstory!)

Love is a four letter word [4]

You can be inventive with flashbacks. In Love is a Four-Legged Word I used a video recorded by a character before he died to present vital evidence in a courtroom battle.


Rather than relying on narrative and introspection to impart the backstory, natural, realistic dialogue between characters is often preferable. Dialogue can be between the hero and heroine, or secondary characters.

Be aware of gratuitous info dumps in dialogue and remember in a romance to keep the focus on the hero and heroine. Anything they say to each other is much more powerful than conversations they have with someone else. The hero and heroine sharing their pasts with each other is the best way for them to discover how their past could be influencing their present.

Memory and dreams

An incident in the present might prompt a memory of the past. You can reveal this to the reader through your character’s introspection or dialogue. Remember, memories can be unreliable and the memory invoked could possibly cause conflict with someone else’s memories. That could lead to interesting scenes!

Letting go

One of the most difficult things about using backstory is letting it go. You’ve created wonderful backgrounds for your characters, built amazing imagined worlds, maybe researched the historical setting for your plot. All that has helped you get your story clear in your mind.

But you need it more than your readers do. Usually, only a fraction of that information is needed in your book. It can be quite a wrench to let the rest go—after all, you’ve done all that work. I found getting the backstory balance right to be quite a learning experience!

Tense technique

So backstory is the big picture that you break down into a lot of little screen grabs. Getting the tense right in backstory is important to keep the reader clearly in the picture. If you are writing in the simple past tense (he raced up the stairs), you would use the past perfect tense (he had raced up the stairs) for your backstory exposition.

Start with the current action in simple past tense, then drip in the back action using past perfect tense. If it is a longer piece of back story, you can write the first couple of sentences using the past perfect “had” to establish it is past, then continue in simple past. (That said, some editors prefer all the action that takes part in the past to be written in past perfect tense.)

Reinventing Rose [5]

My women’s fiction Reinventing Rose is written in first person, present tense—a tricky tense to handle. The backstory is written in simple past. And, as there is only one point of view, I found dialogue an effective way to handle the backstory of the secondary characters.

Make it real

Like seasonings in a meal, effective backstory doesn’t overwhelm but adds flavour. The reader needs to believe in your characters. Revealing their past helps you convince the reader to believe they were living before you chose to write about them. It will also help them believe they will continue living happily-ever-after after you type “The End”.

Dos and don’t of backstory

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The Summer They Never Forgot [7]

It started with a summer kiss…


Sandy Adams is on her way to an interview, but when she sees a signpost for Dolphin Bay she decides to take a detour down memory lane….

Ben Morgan has had his share of heartache. But when a ghost from his youth catches his eye memories of their last summer together come flooding back.


Everything has changed in the past twelve years, and still they’re right back where they started, facing a second chance they deserve…together.


How do YOU avoid backstory info-dumps?

On Friday, regular RU columnist ADAM FIRESTONE offers technical advice on weaponry to writers.


Kandy_head_shot_2 [8]

Kandy Shepherd is an award-winning author of contemporary romance and women’s fiction. She is traditionally published in contemporary romance by Harlequin and Berkley Sensation as well as self-publishing best-selling romance.

She lives on a small farm in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia with her family and a menagerie of four-legged friends. Visit her website:

http://www.kandyshepherd.com [1] and connect with her on Facebook [9] and Twitter [10].

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27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Make backstory work for you by Kandy Shepherd"

#1 Comment By Mercy On May 21, 2014 @ 10:23 am

This was very helpful. Thanks so much for sharing. Backstory always trips me up. I either don’t give enough or I give too much.

#2 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

So glad you found it useful, Mercy. Getting backstory right is so tricky. And I find the balance is different with each story!

#3 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On May 21, 2014 @ 10:34 am

Kandy – Backstory is always an issue for me, along with the whole prologue/no prologue question. I’m a pantser, but I always know the backstory when I start a story. The trick for me is figuring out how much to reveal and when to reveal it. You’d think reading mysteries for fifty-plus years would make pacing reveals easier, but not so much. I bookmarked this for future reference – thank you!

BTW, I know we’re in very different time zones – I hope we don’t make you miss any sleep!

#4 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

Hi Becke, thanks so much for inviting me to RU. It’s a pleasure to be here.
If you find my post of any help I’ll be delighted! I find each story presents its own challenges with backstory so it’s a learning process for each book.
I’ve just off to bed very, very late having met a deadline. I’ll answer any more comments when next my eyes are open!

#5 Comment By Anna Campbell On May 21, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

Hi Kandy! What a fantastic piece. I so agree with you about learning how to put backstory in effectively being such a difficult skill to master. I’ve judged lots of writing competitions and it’s something that comes up again and again. My other advice is avoid “as you know” conversations. If the other person knows, the speaker doesn’t need to say it. And it immediately heralds HUGE backstory dump! After many years of writing, I’ve actually learned that readers will wait for a detailed explanation as long as hints are dropped that a detailed explanation is on the way. And if you are dropping those hints, make sure you deliver! The purpose of an opening is to get readers intrigued enough about your story and characters to read on – there’s no need to set out full chapter and verse at that stage.

I LOVED The Summer They Never Forgot and I can’t wait to revisit Dolphin Bay. And by the way, your technique for imparting backstory in that was textbook. Beautifully done. The revelations were timed for absolute emotional impact!

#6 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

Hi Anna, how nice to see you here!

I found myself nodding at your advice about not starting conversations with “as you know”. So very true about it being a flag that info dump is about to spill out over the page!

Thank you for your kind words about THE SUMMER THEY NEVER FORGOT. I think a reunion story is a huge backstory challenge and I learned so much about imparting it effectively when I was writing that story.

You’re quite right about the “tease” element of weaving in backstory. As a writer, you are in control of how much you reveal to keep up the pace and build the backstory to its own “So that’s why!” climax in the story.

#7 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On May 21, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

Hi Kandy!

When I first started writing, I struggled with major info dumps. I blamed it on over developing my characters. 🙂 I’ve learned to be more judicious with backstory, but I still wonder about how much backstory is needed when writing connected books or a series that involved characters from previous stories.

Wonderful post! Thank you for joining us today.

#8 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

Hi Jennifer, I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t struggle with info dumps when we start off!

Interesting that you should mention backstory requirements in connecting books. I’ve just finished writing the third story in my books for Harlequin Romance set in Dolphin Bay. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about handling the interconnecting backstories of the various characters.

To me it seems you always have to keep the story firmly focused on the characters of the current book. To much “catching up” with the characters from the previous books can shift the focus to them and you don’t want that. Readers like to meet up with those previous characters. At the same time readers who come in midways don’t want to feel alienated. Nothing worse than going to a party where everyone seems to know everyone and you don’t have a clue who they are! Backstory can be used to briefly introduce them. The challenge is to give the reader only the information they need to place the ongoing characters in the context of the current story. The snippets about the previous characters have to earn their place on the page by also helping to drive the current story.

#9 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On May 21, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

Great point about previous characters earning their place in the story. Thank you!

#10 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On May 21, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

I hate to admit it, but I still find it hard to decide where my stories really begin. It seems like I should have learned that in (virtual) Fiction 101, but it usually takes several rewrites before I figure it out.

Anna and Kandy – we’re honored to have TWO of you joining us from Down Under. Any other Aussies here?

#11 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

Hi Becke, I know you’re not alone in finding it hard where to decide where your stories begin!

No matter how much advice we get about starting at a time of change for the characters, etcetera, it’s choosing the best “time of change” that’s the problem for me!

That first chapter is so crucial. Like you, I write and rewrite so many times to get it right. You should see all the dumped versions in my computer file. When it finally clicks into place it’s a real “aha” moment!

#12 Comment By Vanessa Barneveld On May 22, 2014 @ 12:36 am

*Waving* at you from Down Under, Becke!

#13 Comment By Efthalia On May 21, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

Hi Kandy,

Brilliant post and advice.

Personally, it took me a while to realise that backstory and all the details weren’t an upfront necessity.


#14 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

Hi Efthalia, glad you enjoyed the post.

It’s quite a revelation, isn’t it, when you realise just how little you need of all that detail when you start your story–and how effective it can be fed in little bites through the rest!

#15 Comment By Carrie Spencer On May 21, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

Evening Kandy..

My first book I attempted to write started off with 3 chapters of backstory. =0)

I’m definitely keeping this list handy…..great post!


#16 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 21, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

I’m so glad you found the post useful, Carrie.

I smiled at your story of your first book–I have a few like that under the bed!

#17 Comment By Sharon Archer On May 21, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

Hey, Kandy! Excellent post and a timely reminder as I’m just getting into my characters’ backstories at the moment.

Actually, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that “research” and backstory have quite a lot in common – they both need to be woven in with a light hand. I’ve been reading the manuscript of a friend who is writing a non-fiction history. Her research is fascinating but I feel as though she’s struggling to get a good balance between the story of the man she’s writing about and the details of the hardships people in general faced at that time in history.

Hey, I’ve not long finished THE SUMMER THEY NEVER FORGOT! Gorgeous story and an great demonstration of weaving backstory into the pages! And it just so happens that I’ve got REINVENTING ROSE at the top of my eTBR pile! Can’t wait!

#18 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 22, 2014 @ 5:08 am

Hi Sharon, thanks for your comment.

You are so right about research needing the same light hand to weave it through the story. It’s so easy to get lured into including all that fascinating stuff that does nothing to move the story forward.

Thank you for the kind words about THE SUMMER THEY NEVER FORGOT I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. Hope you like REINVENTING ROSE, too!

#19 Comment By Vanessa Barneveld On May 22, 2014 @ 12:35 am

Excellent post, Kandy! I cringe when I think of the newbie backstory mistakes I made in my earliest mss!

A while ago, I watched the pilot episode of a TV series in which, as a viewer, you’re dropped straight into the action. Because it was so well done, I found it quite intriguing and kept watching. The answers to the who, what, where, why, how questions were drip-fed.

#20 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 22, 2014 @ 5:11 am

So glad you enjoyed the post, Vanessa.

Learning to write is not an overnight process, is it. When I think back on some of my earlier efforts I cringe too!

You make a good point about the TV series. It sounds like it introduced the characters and plot so skilfully that writers could learn from it.

Of course now I want to know what the pilot was!

#21 Comment By Cathleen Ross On May 22, 2014 @ 5:00 am

Terrific article on various ways to deal with backstory.
Very interesting as always.

#22 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 22, 2014 @ 5:12 am

I’m pleased you found the post interesting, Cathleen.

Thank you for your comment!

#23 Comment By Amy Rose Bennett On May 22, 2014 @ 6:51 am

Hi Kandy,

What a wonderful post!!! Like you say, weaving back story into a narrative is one of the hardest skills for new writers to acquire. I’m starting to get the hang of it but it has taken some time and quite a lot of rewrites to appreciate how much/how little back story is really needed. Your explanation of all the different techniques is so well done I’m going to have to bookmark it for future reference. Thanks Kandy 🙂


#24 Comment By Kandy Shepherd On May 22, 2014 @ 8:08 am

Hi Amy

It’s great to hear that you found the post useful. Working with backstory can be such a challenge but I found it got easier to handle with each story. I’m sure you will too!

#25 Comment By Gay Yellen On May 26, 2014 @ 9:48 am

Thanks for your thoughts on backstory. I’m writing my second book in The Body Business series, and working on how much info from the first book to repeat as backstory. It’s a tricky balance!

#26 Comment By Anita Diggs On May 27, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

Wonderful article, Kandy! You brought up some really good points about the backstory. I think creating a biography of the character works for the writer. For example let’s say your book takes place in the character’s 35th year. He’s 35 years old; he’s on his way to work, he slips on a banana peel or hurts someone and that person happens to be his millionaire father. Whatever is going to be the inciting incident of this book, it’s in his 35th year, you have to know as the author what happened in all those other 34 years in that character bio. The reading public will never see, your agent will never see, the editor will never see; no one knows about it but you. By creating the biography, you make your character real.

#27 Pingback By Around the web – action, backstory and cleanups | Kerrie Paterson On May 29, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

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