the book doctor: back story



What is it? How should we use it?

'Back story' is the term that refers to things that occur before the time in which your novel is set. It is important in two ways:

You, as creator, need to know the entire history of each of your important characters.

Your characters have pasts: families, friends, school life, embarrassing moments, phobias, favourite foods, and so on. They are good at some things, bad at others, indifferent to or unaware of yet others. Habits have been formed, and taste in music, food, clothes, books. They have parents they get on with in some ways, siblings they fight with or tell all their secrets to. All these things and a multitude of others help determine how your characters will respond to events in your story.

You may find it useful to make a full background check of your characters, right down to such things as nose shapes, where their names came from, previous employment, and so on. This will give you a close picture of your characters, and make them more complete realities.

The reader needs to know something of important events that are having repercussions in the time of the story you create.

However, it is not necessary to tell the reader everything you know, any more than it would be welcomed in a police or journalist report of an event. Select those items that help to explain otherwise strange behaviour: she is afraid of dogs because she was bitten by one as a child; he hates psychiatrists and distrusts women because his wife ran away with her psychiatrist.


Where should the back story be placed?

Not at the front. It is a very common mistake made by novice writers to want to tell everything about their main character in the first few pages. This slows down the story before it begins, and removes one of the main ways in which a writer can generate tension. Don't fall into this trap. Keep the reader guessing. Why is she so rude to that pleasant young woman? Why does he refuse to remove his hat? Don't be in a hurry to tell all. In fact, don't tell.

Show, don't tell.

Remember that a good writer shows the reader an event in such a way that the reader can work out how the characters feel and act as they do. Don't stop the story to tell the reader things. Drop the necessary information in so it becomes part of the narrative movement, not an interruption.

Never reveal all.

Keep back story to a minimum. Only release those details which are absolutely necessary. Does the reader really need to know why the heroine hates corn flakes? If so, put it in. If not, seriously consider leaving it out.

Don't stop your story to flash back.

There are other ways to present necessary back story:

  • someone may mention the necessary piece of information in a casual conversation
  • a diary or letter may offer the relevant details
  • a doctor or teacher or policeman may explain something from the past which is affecting the present.



The novels below all make heavy use of back story. Check them out for very different, very effective approaches:


Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. The backstory appears as flashbacks, short and enigmatic at first, but each time a bit longer and clearer. Note how the back story is focused on a single critical event, not on a variety of occurrences.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre. Interviews, memos, log books, reminiscences, eyewitness accounts and more all provide part of a much larger picture. Here the aim of the protagonist is to re-create the back story that has affected the present (a common aim in crime mysteries also). Note how the back story of the main character is severely limited to those elements which are intertwined with the main back story.

Exodus by Leon Uris. Here, back story is a major method of relating events which have led a group of people to a common place and time. Uris breaks all the rules given above and provides such full back stories that they form mini-novels within the text.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. The present situation of the protagonist is given poignant contrast by recollections of her previous life as each is gradually revealed.


In summary:

  • be aware of how their past affects your characters
  • don't show too much, too soon
  • make sure the details are necessary for the reader, not you



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