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  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.
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.
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.
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!)
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!
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!
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.)
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
- DO Include backstory only where it strengthens and supports your story.
- DO Use backstory to explain your characters’ motivations and goals.
- DO Manipulate the backstory for your own purpose, for example, create red herrings in a mystery.
- DON’T Tell us all about your characters when you first introduce them, weave it through the story instead.
- DON’T Let the past overwhelm the present.
- DON’T Be afraid to throw out any backstory that doesn’t propel your story forward.
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 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:
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