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Sonali Dev: Why Backstory is the Spine of Your Story And How to Use it to Make Your Story Stand Tall

Backstory. The word strikes terror into the hearts of writers learning their trade, but backstory doesn’t always wear a black hat. Longtime RU follower and soon-to-be-published author SONALI DEV [1]shares some insights on backstory that might surprise you.

Wow, you’re all here despite that dreaded word in the title of this post. Backstory. Shudder. Horrors. Yikes. Go ahead, tremble, throw up in terror, then take a breath and come back.

Backstory might have become the rap on the wrist all newbies have learned to fear, what with ‘backstory dump’ being every critic’s handy-dandiest tool. But relax, down this way lies freedom from backstory-phobia.

Let’s start with an easy little exercise.

Try to think of a book you really truly loved. (I told you it was easy)

Is it Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind? Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet? Kristan Higgins’ Waiting On You? Molly O’Keefe’s Crazy Thing Called Love?

I name these because much like all media I have an agenda here and these books are spectacular examples of rich backstory and some of the most unforgettable flashbacks in the genre. But you could come up with any story you absolutely could not put down.

Done? Good.

Now think about that favorite character who made that story your favorite story. Can you tell me what the character’s childhood was like?

Woah… Slow down! If only I had enough time to hear those long drawn out descriptions that just rolled off your tongues. It’s almost as though you grew up with these people, right? You KNOW who they are and by God you know who they were.  And you stayed up all night to make sure they became who you knew they deserved to become.

Now take away what you know about them as children, as teens. Do you still feel like you know them as intimately? Do you still care what happens to them half as much?

I’ll answer that for you. It’s a resounding ‘No.’

While I’m willing to bet that your favorite romance is not set in the protagonist’s childhood, I assure you that without a goodly dose of character history aka backstory that story you love so much would not be the story you love so much.

Okay, so then why the bad rep? Well, because as in everything else in life, it’s about timing, darling.

The problem isn’t with backstory itself.  Readers need backstory. There is no current story without backstory.  There is no you and me without where we came from and what we did with where we came from. The problem is with giving all of that good stuff to the reader right in the beginning and all at once. It’s like meeting someone at a party and telling them everything that ever happened to you without letting them get interested in who you are right now first.

So before we go any further let’s get this very important point out of the way. When I say that backstory is the amazing secret sauce that brings your al dente pasta to life, I don’t mean to suggest that you pour it on uncooked pasta. You get that, right? Ground your readers in story first. Then douse them in backstory so they’re unable to leave the table until the entire dish is gone.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s make this interesting. Despite what I’ve said thus far, it’s not the backstory that makes readers unable to set your story down. What makes your precious backstory make your even more precious story shine is the connection between the backstory and your story.

Your characters are not their backstory, your characters are the choices they make because of their backstory, despite it.

The fact that your heroine was an orphan who was beaten by her caretakers is entirely useless if that fact did not cause her to adopt certain beliefs. Like maybe it made her believe that anytime she gives anyone control they will use it to hurt her. Now her backstory matters. But still not enough.  The combination of her backstory and her belief is still useless unless this belief born of history is definitively challenged in the process of the story, unless she has to move mountains to get over her belief, unless she loses everything because of it and finds a way to gain it back. It is that search for the courage, the grit to challenge and overcome deep rooted beliefs that constitutes the character arc, and makes the story satisfying and worthy of a sleepless night for the reader.

Characters who make decisions in a vacuum are cardboard. Characters who struggle with decisions because of all that has happened to them thus far are fueled by motivation. Their strength must be proven in the battlefield of your story but the journey to finding that strength from a place of weakness is what makes your readers emotionally invested in their victory.

When we know what it was like to be the character in those most unprotected, unformed moments of youth, even when they do horrid, stupid things, we forgive them because we feel the pain that spurred them to do it. Their courage becomes real to us only when we feel connected to the impossible struggle they have to overcome to set things straight. A struggle we ourselves feel might have defeated us.

In Kristan Higgins’ Waiting On You, Lucas is always that little boy who watched his mother die of a terminal illness, who tried to do everything exactly right so his already suffering father didn’t have one more thing to deal with. Even as a hot, successful man who makes us purr, to us he stays that boy who never got to see the father he loved one last time. For that little boy’s pain we forgive him sleeping with another woman after his very first fight with a heroine we love. Because we know that thanks to his childhood he expects loss, thinks himself deserving of it. And it is a beautiful thing when he struggles long and hard and finally finds the courage to accept that he deserves to keep someone he loves.

In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett makes one seemingly stupid choice after another. She desperately pursues someone we know is terrible for her while pushing away someone who’s perfect. But we dig through that tome over and over to follow her as she has her heart broken. But would we feel the same way about her if the parts in the book where we see her as a little girl hungry for her mother’s attention were taken away, or if we didn’t get to share her child’s mind sensing, knowing  her mother’s unhappiness but having no power to fix it? I’ll tell you I wouldn’t. To this day, decades after reading the book, I can smell her mother’s cachet through her nose.  And when she struggles with that model of womanhood she craves to emulate but just can’t, all her other struggles matter that much more. And when she finally discovers all the ways in which she already is and all the ways in which she can never be that paragon, her struggles and consequently the story become epic.

Of course, these stories aren’t about these struggles alone, and the authors being the skillful geniuses they are fold just enough past at just to right time to make the present  matter, but at no point do they let you, the reader, distance yourself from the past the characters are trying to overcome. And they do it without you ever knowing it’s being done.

As new authors, we can only aspire to that level of skill in execution. But there are a few things we can focus on that might aid us in the planning and help us get there someday:

1)      Know who your characters were as children, what they feared, what they revered, what they swore they would or would not become.  There is no way to know too much about your characters. My favorite metaphor about character development is that a character is like an iceberg. The reader sees only the tip that sticks out of the ocean, but the writer knows the huge mountain under the ocean that holds that tip up. Your character’s childhood is the very base of that mountain. Please don’t show it all to the reader, but you can’t cheat your way out of building it.

2)      Backstory isn’t decoration. Understand how your character’s history created their belief system and how it impacts their decisions today. Goals and motivations that rise from beliefs rooted in backstory give the character and the story relevance and purpose and propel it forward.

3)      The story arc is a curve that starts from beliefs rooted in backstory, touching along the way on everything these beliefs take away from the character, and finally ending where the character is able to overcome these beliefs. Throw characters in situations where they have to make choices that challenge and support these beliefs, where they must show courage or cowardice. The more seemingly insurmountable the beliefs, the more satisfying the victory and the more compelling the arc. Map this arc before you start writing.

Oh and if you ever buy that thing people tell you about flashbacks being bad writing, read those books I mentioned earlier in this post and you’ll never shun them again.


Circling back to that exercise, tell me some examples of books where you think the author handled backstory well, where flashbacks hooked you so bad you still dream about them.  Let’s talk.

Regular columnist and weapons expert ADAM FIRESTONE is back at RU on Wednesday.



Sonali Dev [2]

Sonali Dev’s first literary work was a play about mistaken identities performed at her neighborhood Diwali extravaganza in Mumbai. She was eight years old. Despite this early success, Sonali spent the next few decades getting degrees in architecture and writing, and migrating across the globe. With the advent of her first gray hair her mad love for telling stories returned full force, and she now conjures up stories that make a mad tangle with her life as supermom, domestic goddess, and world traveler.
Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog.
Sonali’s debut novel, A Bollywood Affair, will be available in October 2014 and is up for preorder (http://amzn.to/1lx54aw [3]).
Visit Sonali at www.sonalidev.com [4] or find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/sonalidevfanpage and on Twitter @Sonali_Dev
Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years—not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. Her grandmother has even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be—if her husband would just come and claim her.
Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naïve village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger. Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life—cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.


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62 Comments To "Sonali Dev: Why Backstory is the Spine of Your Story And How to Use it to Make Your Story Stand Tall"

#1 Comment By Kristan Higgins On June 16, 2014 @ 6:26 am

Sonali, thanks for the shout-out, and thanks for the fantastic article. I so agree with what you said: it’s not backstory that’s a problem, it’s the way it’s delivered sometimes. There’s a difference between an info dump and understanding the characters’ wounds and flaws.

#2 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:54 am

OMG, People, the master of backstory stopped by! Thanks, Kristan. I’ve learned so much from the way you handle backstory in general and flashbacks in particular. That point when Lucas puts his foot on the tracks will stay with me forever. And you’re right delivery is everything. And there’s no shortcut to learning how to do it, is there? sigh.
Big hugs!

#3 Comment By Sheridan Jeane On June 16, 2014 @ 6:40 am

I loved your article. You provided some excellent examples of back story. It all comes back to Goal, Motivation and Conflict. The character’s internal conflict that he/she must overcome needs to be deeply rooted…typically in his/her childhood. The author needs to convey those essential details to the reader through skillfully inserting the back story.
Backstory does NOT have to be a dirty word.

#4 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:59 am

Thanks Sheridan! I have a therapist friend who always sends me back into my childhood to figure the root of any of my problematic behaviors. And what works for us must work for our characters, right.
Yup, so not a dirty word.

#5 Comment By Kelsey Browning On June 16, 2014 @ 6:57 am

Sonali –

Mwah on a great lesson today! To me, back story is only “evil” when it keeps the current story from moving forward. Books and authors that do it well? To me, if they do it well, it’s seamless so I don’t even recognize it – LOL.

As an author, I struggle with creating back story that’s compelling but not completely tragic (another thing Kristan does beautifully!). 🙂


#6 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 7:06 am

Hey, Kelsey! Uh-oh. My characters have pretty tragic backgrounds and it didn’t even strike me that I should struggle with that. LOL. Great, now I have something new to worry about. Thanks a lot, pal!

Seriously though, if it isn’t contrived, tragedy is the best kind of backstory. Even if it isn’t tragic in the world context I think it should be fairly tragic to the character, shouldn’t it? Stop struggling and go for it!

Big Hugs,

#7 Comment By Kelsey Browning On June 16, 2014 @ 7:23 am

LOL, Sonali! Well, when you write comedy-ish books, it’s hard to reconcile too-dark with light. That being said, I have a couple of deep, dark secrets in my current contemporary series and more coming up in my next series!


PS – sorry I missed you in Chicago last week, but thanks for the henna. I plan to henna my nieces-in-law!

#8 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 7:57 am

Me too. So bummed to have missed it. I heard you had the house in splits. Send pictures of the henna.

#9 Comment By Tory Ferrera On June 16, 2014 @ 8:16 am


Terrific article! I really liked the example of GWTW, which I read obsessively as a girl. And looking back, there are a lot of reasons that a reader wouldn’t like Scarlett but that backstory (and of course the Civil War setting) makes her just sympathetic enough that we are hoping she’ll finally see the obvious and find true love.

Reading my first Kristan Higgins (The Best Man) and man does she do a great job with backstory! So I can’t wait to try this other title!

#10 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 10:40 am

Thanks Tory!
Scarlett definitely pushes the envelope of likability, which is what I think makes her such an unforgettable character.
The Best Man is one of my favorite books, and Levi’s mom’s character is one of the best backstory characters who you never see in real time. She totally holds the key to why he is who he is.
Thanks again for stopping by!

#11 Comment By Miranda Liasson On June 16, 2014 @ 8:21 am

Oh, Sonali, so excellent. Thanks for giving us a fresh way to think about backstory!

“Your characters are not their backstory, your characters are the choices they make because of their backstory, despite it.” Love it!

#12 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 10:41 am

As always, Miranda, thank you!!

It’s funny that I was just reading your process blog and getting ready to comment.

Big hugs and thanks for stopping by!

#13 Comment By Mary Jo Burke On June 16, 2014 @ 9:13 am

Hi Sonali,

I focus on the characters’ families, the people who knew them when. And they know where all the skeletons are buried.

Sorry, I missed you too, Kelsey.

#14 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 10:43 am

Hi Mary Jo!
Oh families are the best part of backstory, they can cause SO much damage and fix so much damage as well.

Thanks and hugs!

#15 Comment By Desiree Cox On June 16, 2014 @ 9:30 am

Hi Sonali,

I am a novice author and am working on my first release as well. This article on backstory is extremely beneficial to me. Now when I do the re-read of my MS, I can make sure I have incorporated enough to support my protagonists actions and beliefs.

#16 Comment By Sonali On June 16, 2014 @ 11:32 am

I’m so glad it helped, Desiree!

Good luck with your first release!!

Thanks so much for commenting!

#17 Comment By Gail Hart On June 16, 2014 @ 10:18 am

Great post, Sonali! I especially like the iceberg analogy.


#18 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

Hey Gail!

It is brilliant, isn’t it? I took a novel writing class with the fabulous Frances De Pontes Peebles and she drew the iceberg for us on the whiteboard. It will be forever emblazoned on my brain.


#19 Comment By Lucy Lit On June 16, 2014 @ 10:35 am

Thank you so much for this concise yet usable post! Finally a way for me to understand the mechanics of using backstory. Plus a golden nugget on flashbacks that makes sense. Yay!

#20 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

Thanks Lucy!

My books tend to be very heavy in backstory. After years of being repeatedly smacked down for backstory dumping I was determined to learn why it works so well for some authors and why I personally am so drawn to backstory rich characters. And viola!

I’m so happy to share my a-ha moment!

#21 Comment By Ann Macela On June 16, 2014 @ 10:41 am

Thanks, Sonali, for exactly what I needed today. I’m struggling with my heroine’s backstory something awful right now. Your comments made me realize that I haven’t gone deep enough!


#22 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

Yay, FAM!!

This makes me giddy with happiness!


#23 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On June 16, 2014 @ 10:44 am

Kristan – thanks so much for joining us!! Sonali is right – your books all have characters with rich backgrounds that give them layers of interest. I should probably go back and re-read them all, for instructional purposes, of course! 😉

Sonali – My family calls me the Backstory Queen, not in a good way, because in conversation I tend to fill in the history of whatever we’re talking about. In writing, I’ve been so nervous about doing the same thing, sometimes I leave out too much. *sigh*

Maybe thinking of backstory as pasta sauce will help. 🙂

I LOVE your post, especially this line, which I want to frame:

Your characters are not their backstory, your characters are the choices they make because of their backstory, despite it.

Thanks for giving me a new perspective on the dreaded BS!

#24 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

Hi Becke!

Thanks SO much for having me after all those scheduling switcharoos.

That’s funny, because my family says the same thing about me, only they call me ‘tangential’ because I go off into backstories when we’re talking about something they see as unrelated.

Thanks again and Big Hugs!

#25 Comment By Kristan Higgins On June 16, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

Hello, my darling Becke! Happy to have seen this article today…Sonali really puts things so beautifully, doesn’t she? I agree about that killer line you mentioned. There it is in a nutshell…perfectly said!

#26 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On June 16, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

LOL, Sonali – I can totally relate!

Kristan – You know I always have your books on preorder, and I’ve had Sonali’s book preordered for ages, too.

I’ve always dreaded figuring out how to handle backstory, but between your books and Sonali’s post, I’m now kind of excited to try something new.

Sonali – Judging by the number of comments here, you touched on something that concerns a lot of us. Thank you so much for a fabulous post, and for hanging out with us today!

#27 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

Oh Becke, you know I love RU, it’s kind of my alma mater 🙂

Something about hearing that someone has preordered my book makes me tear up. It’s just such a crazy feeling I can’t even describe it. So, THANK YOU!

#28 Comment By Amy DeLuca/Amy Patrick On June 16, 2014 @ 10:55 am

This is probably the clearest, best explanation I’ve ever seen of well-done backstory. I’m also a lover of Kristan’s books and SEP– the others I need to check out! Great job!

#29 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

Hey Amy!!

Oh you have to read Molly O’Keefe’s RITA nominated Crazy Thing Called Love. Holy Crow, she ends with one of the most powerful flashbacks ever. Ever!

Thanks as usual for your support!


#30 Comment By India Powers On June 16, 2014 @ 11:06 am

Great post, Sonali, and so true! One of my favorite authors is Maggie Osborne. I love her books Silver Lining and The Promise of Jenny Jones. The heroines both have hard backstories that have shaped them, and you root for them to see that they are more than their backstories led them to believe.

Thanks for sharing your insights that backstory is not a dirty word! 🙂

#31 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

Hey India,

You remember, this was one of the things we talked about at one of our retreats. So, you know it’s one of my favorite rants. Isn’t it great to have a place where your rants help? 🙂

Going to check those books out. Thanks for sharing!

Big Hugs,

#32 Comment By Sandra Owens On June 16, 2014 @ 11:28 am

Fantastic post, Sonali. Backstory is a difficult thing to get right…how much to give when. I’ve read all Kristan Higgins’ books, but I’m going to re-read Waiting On You for the sole purpose of studying how she handles the backstory. One of my favorite authors, and one I think is excellent at backstory is Joanna Bourne.

#33 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

Hi Sandy!

Joanna Bourne, got it! (and the TBR, she grows)

The Best Man is also a fantastic example of doing backstory right. SEPs Ain’t She sweet is another brilliant example because the heroine is seemingly awful, she’s done some pretty horrid things (I mean horrid) but then you get a look into her childhood and boom! you don’t begrudge her anymore.

Hugs and thanks for stopping by!

#34 Comment By Piper On June 16, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

As a reader, I tend to be more patience of backstory and flashbacks. I tend to read my cps and betas as if I’m someone who wouldn’t be patient of them, though. I mean, we need to know something….oh well. I can’t think of any titles right now, but GWTW is certainly a good one.
Great post Sonali! I ‘m glad to see that you are standing up for backstory.
Now off to get some pasta with sauce….:)

#35 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

Hey Piper, my friend!

I actually just don’t understand why flashbacks have gained such a bad rep. I love them. I mean pasta without sauce?? Unthinkable!

Hugs and thanks for stopping by.

#36 Comment By Nan Dixon On June 16, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

What a wonderful post, Sonali!
You got me thinking about the current book I’m revising. Since it’s suspense, sometimes I forget to let their internals force their decisions versus the external plot.
Thanks for reminding me that my characters’ journeys always start with their wounds!

#37 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

Hi Nan!!

It’s awful isn’t it how excited we get about our protagonist’s wounds?? “Yay! that awful terrible tragedy is just perfect!”– I mean who in their right minds says that? Um, us.

Congratulations on your sale I am SO SO excited for you!


#38 Comment By Darcy Woods On June 16, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

Sonali! Brilliantly insightful, my talented friend! Such an apt explanation of backstory, and how when used properly, breathes life into our iceberg characters. There is so much happening beneath those waters, isn’t there?!

Ha! And pasta is nothing more than tasteless Elmer’s glue without the sauce!!!! Your food analogies always put a smile on my face…and a grumble in my belly. 😉

*squeezes you and your backstories*

#39 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

Me and my backstories are squeezing you right back, darling!

So nice of you to bring up elmers glue in the same sentence as pasta, now all that gluten free stuff in my pantry might go uneaten. Argh!

Hugs and thanks for stopping by!

#40 Comment By Maggie Bolitho On June 16, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

Thanks for a succinct and easily understood article!
My current work-in-progress was stalling and I didn’t know what to do about it. So I started telling the protagonist’s story from childhood. Now I have 40,000 words of backstory, not much of which will make it into the novel. But I sure understand my main character a whole lot better.
Your article makes me much more confident about the use of this information and its importance in the work. Thank you!

#41 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On June 16, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

Oh, Maggie! I feel your pain. 🙂

#42 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

Hi Maggie!

40,000 words of backstory! Sounds like my kind of book! I too write a lot of words that don’t go into the book, but kind of do.

Good luck with your story and thanks so much for stopping by,

#43 Comment By Sharon Wray On June 16, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

Such a great post, Sonali.
My characters come with a huge amount of backstory that I’m always wrangling. And you are so right–It’s about how it’s shredded apart and put back together so it enhances the pacing and doesn’t drown the story. I love your “It’s all about the timing, darling”. I have to pin that up on my bulletin board!!

#44 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

Hi Sharon!

Yes, I have to pin that on my board too. My first MS was a ‘second chance at first love’ story and I swear I took those scenes apart and put them together so many times, it might as well be a jigsaw. But it was a great exercise in pacing.

Big hugs, and thanks so much for commenting!

#45 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On June 16, 2014 @ 4:45 pm

Hola, Sonali!

I know I can give Becke a run for her money when it comes to backstory. I could write a novella on backstory for each of my characters.

I’m a huge fan of SEP and Kristan Higgins books because both authors are adept at weaving backstory and secondary characters to develop their H/H. This post makes me think of Terri Austin’s post last Monday, which was about knowing your characters and how that can work to your advantage when you’ve written yourself into a corner. A well-developed character give you lots to work with and draw inspiration from, but you can’t achieve that without backstory.

SEP’s Dream A Little Dream is one of my favorites. There are several POVs in the story, including those of the hero’s parents. You’d think that would be too many POVs, but she pulls it off seamlessly with clever use of backstory and flashbacks.

Wonderful post and gorgeous cover! Thanks for joining us today!

#46 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:26 pm

Thanks for having me, Jen!

Actually Dream a Little Dream and Ain’t She Sweet are my two SEP favorites (and of course Call Me Irresistible, but that’s only because I’m in love with Teddy, I know I know, just like everyone else).

All three of those books have heroine’s who are down to their last penny on their luck and SEP resurrects them like the genius she is. And yet there is absolutely nothing similar about the 3 heroines in terms of character, they are as distinct and fully formed as if they were real people. That’s character development! Sigh.

I’m so glad you liked my cover. yay!

#47 Comment By Talia Quinn On June 16, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

Great post, Sonali! This: “Your characters are not their backstory, your characters are the choices they make because of their backstory, despite it.” Yup. That’s the heart of it, that right there. Backstory done right amps up the tension rather than taking anything away from it. Backstory makes us CARE, as you say. It informs the character’s actions, the arc. Everything, really.

My first romance, Hold Me Tight, had two long flashbacks toward the beginning of the book. I loved them, both tonally and emotionally, but when I heard, “Oh, you’re not supposed to have flashbacks,” I tried taking them out and just alluding to the events instead. Funny thing: my Golden Heart score that year plummeted like a jumper off the Golden Gate Bridge. The book went from a just-outside-finaling score to a bottom-half score. I’m no dummy. I can learn from my mistakes. I put those flashbacks back in. The next year? The book won the freaking award. *hugs my flashbacks*

#48 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On June 16, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

Congratulations, Talia! And thanks for sharing this story. VERY interesting!

#49 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

I love that story, Talia!

Oh and guess what? One of the things on my revision letter from my editor for A Bollywood Affair was that he wanted to see more flashbacks of Samir’s childhood. I swear I wanted to hug him, it was like my kids asking if they could do extra homework.
And guess what else, I had written a lot of Samir’s childhood out as part of his character development and I just had to put it into the story at the right time.
Big Hugs and thanks for sharing that story!

#50 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On June 16, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

I think it’s interesting you mentioned AIN’T SHE SWEET out of all SEP’s titles. Backstory is a key aspect of the plot – much as I love all her books, in many ways this is my favorite.

#51 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 6:45 pm


As I was telling Sharon in a comment above, my first manuscript was a ‘second chance at first love’ story and it was strife with all this backstory from when the H/H were first together.

I literally took Ain’t She Sweet apart, scene by scene, sometimes line by line to see how SEP handled her two timelines. And rewrote my book by following her model of sprinkling the backstory in and being judicious but emotionally focused with my flashbacks.

Then I attended one of her workshops where she mentioned that she herself wrote that book linearly first and then worked really hard on breaking up the backstory and then sprinkling it in through the book. And it made me practically hop up and down in my seat.

Well that’s my little fangirl story.

#52 Comment By Sherry Marshall On June 16, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

Totally true. Who we are today is because of our past. Not many of us are free from our upbringing and experiences. (yes I am a therapist!) It makes sense then, that this needs to be included in our characters. How we do this in our writing, as you say has to be skillful. Same in real life. If we only talk about and live in our past, we don’t get on with our life!
Thanks for a great post.

#53 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

Hi Sherry, you remind me of my therapist friend who’s always asking me to go back and identify where the root of my behaviors came from.
And excellent point about getting stuck in the past. It’s only relevant if it impacts the present.

Thanks for commenting!

#54 Comment By Jacqui Nelson On June 16, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

Great article, Sonali, and (I’ll never get tired of saying this) great book cover! Thank you for sharing your views on backstory. Timing and connection – the power to two words!

#55 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

Hi Jacqui!

You hit it on the head. Those are exactly the two words that make it all make sense.

And thanks about the cover. I’ll never get tired of hearing it. So carry on 🙂


#56 Comment By Christine S. Foutris On June 16, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

Wonderful post…agree wholeheartedly and as someone also “trimming” and “re-sprinkling” my backstory in my MS…thanks for the “killer line” as Kristan calls it! Great job, kiddo! Can’t wait for your book!

#57 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

Hi Chris,

Thank you so much. For this and for the wonderful email. It made my heart fill up.
Good luck with the trimming and sprinkling, I’m sure you will make it shine.

Big hugs,

#58 Comment By Carrie Spencer On June 16, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

Evening Sonali!

Such an awesome post. =) I agree about SEP (adore) and Kristan’s (genuflect) use of backstory – they know how to use it and never once do you feel lost or bored!

One of Nora Robert’s books, The Witness, starts off with backstory. Ok, technically you can call it a prologue or what-happened-10-years-ago..but it’s backstory. And it pulls you in so deep to the character that you don’t stop reading until the book is done.

I love those books. Those characters are a part of me for the rest of my life. Kristan does it impeccably, SEP does it invisibly. Just suddenly, those characters MEAN something to you – you root for them, you cry for them, you laugh with them.

And most of all, you KNOW them. That’s what makes all of the above authors a definite must-buy for me..because their books will always be more than just books….they are now a part of me.


Excellent post Sonali – and a beautiful cover for your book!


#59 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 16, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

Thanks, Carrie!

Must read Witness. But your description of that prologue reminded me of another superb example– After The Night by Linda Howard. The emotional quotient of that book is through the roof!

It has that exact same prologue/10 years ago thing when the dirt poor heroine is 14 and has a humongous crush on the town royalty hero and he watches her get thrown out of her trailer home and have her life and family destroyed.

After that insanely well written prologue I would have followed those two to the ends of the earth to make sure things turned out okay for them.

Gosh, I need to go read that again right now!

And thank you so much about the cover!


#60 Comment By Anju Gattani On June 20, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

What a great article, Sonali! Something you and I chatted over the phone just 2 months ago.

So here I am exploring, in detail, more of the back story needed for my w-i-p… and what a wonderful article to read – a real jump-start!

Many congratulations to the upcoming debut! Wishing you success and flying sales, my desi friend!!


#61 Comment By Sonali Dev On June 20, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

Thanks Anju, that means a lot.

Looking forward to talking about the progress you’ve made.


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[…] Why Backstory is the Spine of Your Story And How to Use it to Make Your Story Stand Tall Sonali Dev on Romance University blog about why you shouldn’t be afraid of the much maligned backstory of your book. […]