How to Make Backstory Work for You

From Janice Hardy’s Fiction University:

A character’s history is important, but not enough to bog down your entire story to hear it.

Along with adverbs and telling, I think backstory completes the unholy trinity of writing. So much so that agent and writing guru Donald Maass advises writers to cut any backstory in the first 50 pages.

But backstory does have its uses, and sometimes, it’s critical to know that history.

Even if it’s not critical for the reader to know it.

In some genres it’s more of an issue. Fantasy, science fiction, historical—any genre where the past and the history of that past strongly affects the current plot and the motivations of the characters. Doubly so if the antagonist is the one with the past that’s come back to haunt someone, since you don’t always see the antagonist’s POV.

One of my WIPs has a major event that happened decades ago, but this event is the trigger for all the present-day plot events in the story. I knew basically what had happened in the past, but I focused more on what my protagonists were doing/uncovering and chose what parts of the antagonist’s plot to use based on them, not what had actually happened.

By the time I was done, I wasn’t happy. The mystery part wasn’t as strong as I knew it could be, because I hadn’t spent enough time on the backstory. If you looked too closely at the plot, things didn’t quite line up, and questions were left hanging.

The more you thought about the story, the weaker the story got. Not a good thing.

So I went back and wrote the backstory.

I drafted a rough synopsis that described that past event and what happened. Why the characters did what they did and the ramifications of those actions. When I was done, I did the same thing with my antagonist. Then, I did it with all my major and supporting characters who were involved in it, no matter peripherally. One character was nine years old when this happened, but after doing this, I realized the event had a profound affect on who he was that made his character much richer and more interesting.

That’s a lot of summarizing and a lot of backstory, but afterward, I knew how all the pieces fit and those plot events that felt shaky could now be made solid. I knew why folks did what they did in the present day plot, even if they weren’t the POV character. I had secrets non-POV characters wanted to avoid, which gave me all kinds of great fodder to use to up the mystery, the tension, and use for plot.

Link to the rest at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

21 thoughts on “How to Make Backstory Work for You”

  1. SO much easier to just write the charcters as they are as they and you move through the story that is unfolding all around you. Any necessary “backstory” will come out naturally, and any that does not is not necessary.

    • While that’s true for me, everyone has their own “naturally” skills and those that don’t. She clearly doesn’t get that for free and her tips are for those like herself.

    • True…
      …for some genres and/or projects.

      Making everything up as you go along in, say, a high fantasy series of 100K word volumes requires at a minimum perfect memory. Otherwise the fellowship of dragon slayers might spend two days riding from A to B and two weeks from B to A with no justification given. It has happened, usually across volumes written years apart but sometimes in the same volume.

      Complex multithreaded narratives need nailing down all sorts of upfront minutia that don’t need to be included in the final manuscript (and are best left out) but are necessary to inform the hows and whys of the starting point and the evolution of the narrative. (How did the evil empire come to be? How has it sustained itself for xxx years. Why does the protagonist care? What makes them worth watching? Things like that are easiest to deal with before starting.)

      Some writers can and do work freehand but others are more like Tolkien who built a million word+ backstory to his books.

      It takes all kinds and it can be useful to see how others deal with similar challenges, even if their problems or solutions aren’t useful.

      • Yes, there’s a reason the final Harry Potter included a shout-out to the continuity editor. I’ll bet George R.R. Martin has a whole team for A Song of Ice and Fire series. And I’ve read the fantasies where the author clearly did not think too much about the backstory or the consequences of the premise. Some types of stories can be written without thinking ahead, but I wouldn’t try it with mystery, sci-fi, or fantasy. Probably not family sagas either.

  2. Misspellings, typos, and inconsistencies aside—and my first reader catches those with his own creative subconscious as he reads (to enjoy the story, as a reader, not “looking for” problems) and things pop out at him—I’ll stick with my original statement.

    But yes, of course, to each his or her own. Personally, I’ve been there, bought the t-shirt, never going back. I once spent 3 years on doing nothing but outlining a novel. It still has never been written. I would no more spend the time writing something when I already know the ending than I would paying for tickets to watch a movie after someone told me the ending.

    Since I learned to trust myself and my characters, I’ve written 72 novels, 9 novellas, and around 230 short stories, all in a period of 7 years. And I had a ball doing it. Not a minute of it was the horrible labor I hear beginning writers talk about. (That’s what they were taught, that writing should be hard work. And who taught them and keep the myths of writing alive? Those who sell books saying that writing should be hard work.)

    And I’m not alone. Lee Child’s New York editor, over lunch one day, mentioned a certain event in the book might have been better had it happened at a different specific place. Child dabbed at his mouth with his napkin and nodded. “I agree. But that isn’t how it happened.” The passage remained where it was.

    Many, many long-term professional writers trust themselves and their characters. Instead of forcing events and character actions and reactions from some authorial ivory tower, they slip into a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, roll off the parapet into the trenches, and run through the story with the characters. There, they record what happens and what the characters say and do as the story unfolds all around them.

    It’s great fun, and in the end you get the authenic story instead of something that was plotted and planned to within a screaming inch. As Bradbury said, (I’m paraphrasing) “Plot is only the footprints left in the story as the characters race through to exotic destinations.” And Stephen King calls himself his characters’ stenographer. And of course, I learned to let go and trust myself from Dean Wesley Smith.

    It’s wonderful to understand that a fiction is only a few minutes’ (short story) or hours’ (novel) entertainment, nothing more. I also understand that what one reader will like another will loathe, so what readers think of my work, good or bad, is none of my business. I’ve written stories that I personally didn’t like but over which readers happily effused. Go figure. That taught me an important lesson (as I wrote in another comment in this venue a day or two ago): Writing is my job. Selecting what to read and judging (liking or disliking) it is the reader’s job. I like my job better.

    I’ve found a way to produce better, more unique and more original stories and have a ton of fun doing so. Why would I ever turn around of my own free will and trudge back into the mines just because other writers (most of whom have written far less than I) believe writing ‘should be’ hard labor? Anyone who’s curious can learn more free of charge by downloading free PDF articles on my instructive Journal website at

    • You did a ton of strawmanning. She wrote the book. It fell flat. She fixed it.

      Had nothing to do with not trusting herself or the characters.

      Not that there weren’t good points in this comment. They just aren’t relevant to the OP’s experience.

  3. PS: I do understand that a lot of writers, because we’re inundated with the nonsense every single day that you can’t write a novel on your own, are too frightened to ever break away from the myths (you must character sketch, world-build, outline, revise, seek critical input, rewrite and “polish”).

    But if you will allow me a brief digression, think about this: If following those myths really does work, then why isn’t everyone who follows them successful? Why in fact do so few who follow them actually finish and publish work? Why do so many simply give up and go find something else (probably something fun) to do?

    If a writer tries this zen-like way of writing and it doesn’t work, s/he will have lost nothing but a few days and s/he can always go back to outlining, etc. But if it does work (and if you give it an honest try, it will), a whole new world will open to you.

    Every writer I know who lets go of the myths and Just Writes the story as it unfolds around him or her and the characters as they run through it is still writing and having a ton of fun doing so. Just sayin’.

    Anyway, makes no difference to me how others write. Doesn’t increase or decrease my bottom line. Just trying to spread the word that it’s all right to trust yourself and your characters. And unlike those who propagate the myths, I’m getting nothing out of it but a good feeling).

    • But if it does work (and if you give it an honest try, it will), a whole new world will open to you.

      I suppose one could say the same thing about outlining, plotting, or even knowing the ending. Myth isn’t necessary for any of them.

      Any given technique can work for any given subset of writers.

  4. Oops. Just want to finish a thought. A few paragraphs up I wrote

    “If a writer tries this zen-like way of writing and it doesn’t work, s/he will have lost nothing but a few days and s/he can always go back to outlining, etc. But if it does work (and if you give it an honest try, it will), a whole new world will open to you.”

    I have to add, Yet the unreasonable fears are so strong that few will even try. Most break out in a sweat when they even consider it.

    Okay, I’ll shut up now. And again, whatever’s right for you is right for you. Pay me no mind. I’ll just be over here writing. (grin)

    • Not that I object to anything you said–whatever works for you–but out of curiosity, what is your main genre?
      Things change depending on the type of story.

      Childs I understand: tough guy action stories set (more or less) in this milieu. The backstory is the world around us and neither the reader nor the author needs to keep track of what is “off camera”.

      My main area of interest is SF.
      And in SF&F backstory matters.

      In SF, “because I said so” only goes so far. The audience expects more. In those genres the “on screen” action is typically the tip of an iceberg. If the author doesn’t bother to lay it out, even for himself, it will ripple through the story. And readers will notice. And judge accordingly. Random or arbitrary choices don’t fare well.

      Most writers in *those* genres can’t afford to wave off such questions.

      One example: David Weber’s ON BASILISK STATION.

      Free here:

      It is the first published story set at the beginning of a war between two interstellar nations. The very first thing does, before even introducing the newly promoted commander of a crippled light cruiser assigned to the boondocks, is to establish why “the bad guys” do what they do. It’s not because they’re mustschio twirling Dick Dastardly. Rather they are acting out of strategic impertives, choices of those that came before them, that constrain their options. They don’t want to start a war that will kill millions. But they can’t do nothing. They find another option. A backdoor way to get what they need.
      It might even work.
      That is the story’s instigating event.
      Everything that follows is a function of the characters, who they are, how they think, and the world they live in, which is slowly revealed to the trader as the action unfolds.
      In this story, a standalone that nonetheless launched a 20+ volume series with dozens of protagonists the backstory defines the stage and provides the framework for everything that follows.
      Anybody aspiring to play in that sub-genre is well advised to study his early works. Dude knew what he was up to.

      • I must disagree with the idea that On Basilisk Station represents an ideal of how to do backstory. Twice, Weber brings the action to a screeching halt so that he can explain things like the physics of hyperspace travel or the history of the heroine’s home system. It’s relevant, and the information needed to be conveyed somehow, don’t get me wrong, but the way it was done was extremely clumsy. It’s blazingly obvious that Weber said, “Okay, we have to pause things so that I can give you all a lesson in How It All Works.” Basilisk Station was his first novel, and it showed.

        That being said, I did like the Havenite PoV sections that you mention, making it clear why they were doing what they were doing. It’s one of the things that gave the world a lot of depth.

        • Well, Weber’s infodumps are by now a staple of his works. He hasn’t changed in 30 years. That said, the infodumps don’t argue against building an extensive backstory, do they?

          I’m not saying his writing is universally perfect, just that one coud learn a lot about world building and backstory use from his (early) books. It supports dozens of novels, anthologies, and spinoffs, after all.

          Who are the Legislaturists, how they came to be, how they ended up drives the bulk of the series through decades of war (and books! 😉 ) so getting it right from.the beginning is crucial to the series. Not to say he doesn’t insert a couple of retcons much later in the series but even those don’t invalidate anything that came before which is a common sin in other properties. (Here’s looking at you, LUCASFILM.)

          Also, his Havenite arcs are a strength of the series, showing that even cruel and broken regimes may be driven by rational decisions *within their context*. The series does have a few evil characters (with evil=harming others unnecessarily) but by and large it tries to humanize the foes. It isn’t all noble and virtuous good guys versus blackhearted villains. Which allows for the third “phase” of the saga.

          (Apropos of the latter, I’m wondering where/how the Torch arc will procede without Flint.)

      • Funny how “whatever works for you (me)” is such a common phrase these days. Ranks right up there with participation trophies and there are no losers, everyone is a winner. (grin) Because it doesn’t really mean “whatever works“; it means “whatever you want to do is fine, whether or not it results in a well-crafted story and/or publication.”

        But to your question, I write across several genres: action-adventure, thriller, mystery, western (period and contemporary) and science fiction.

        I have a period western series that was originally a 12-volume saga and is now up to 20 volumes and counting because there was a 16 year gap between volumes 2 and 3 of the original saga. The main character tugged on my sleeve and asked whether I’d like to know what happened in the interim. Hence the 8-volume (so far) “gap” series.

        I also have a 10- or 11-volume “we went there” generation-ship SF series, as well as two “they came here” SF series starts (two volumes each). There’s also a 4-volume action-adventure series in which I painted myself into a corner. To get out I’ll have to add time-travel, and that will turn it into an action-adventure SF series.

        My Blackwell Ops thriller series is at 8 volumes currently. I might or might not return to it eventually. And I have a mystery PI series featuring Stern Talbot that runs through 10 novels and novellas. There are also several stand-alone SF, western, crime/detective/PI, and action-adventure novels and novellas as well as around 230 short stories across the range of genres EXCEPT bodice-ripper romances. I don’t write those.

        Just to clarify, I never said backstory isn’t important. I only said that as I move through the story that is unfolding all around me and mycharacters, any necessary backstory will come out naturally, and any that does not is not necessary.

        I would never think of allowing my (or anyone else’s) conscious, critical mind to “correct” what my characters and my creative subconscious conveyed to me. I find the very notion absurd and pretentious.

        Or to put it another way, I would no more try to force on my characters my critical-mind version of what happened in their story than I would attempt to revise my neighbors’ telling of their vacation trip to Disneyland or the Bahamas. I would assume the neighbors know better than I because they were actually there. (duh) I choose to show my characters the same respect. (shrug)

        In MY (very dull) story I’m sitting at a keyboard. With any luck at all, my fingers are racing over the keys, recording what happens and what the POV character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels (physically and emotionally) in the characters’ story, the story that they, not I, are living.

        Hope that clears it up. 🙂 And again, however you or others want to write is fine with me. I just like to let others know there is an alternative to the old outline-revise-seek critical input-rewrite-polish system that’s touted in almost every how-to book and website out there.

        • As far as I’m concerned, “whatever works for you” is just that.
          Not everybody works the same way and what works for one/some/many is not guaranteed to work for everyone.

          I try to keep an open mind on how others work but in the end my own way of doing things (pretty much everything in life) is my own and not something I would recommend to anybody else. But it generally works for me.

          • I suspect my ways might horrify many. OK. And I don’t really care if anyone else does it my way.

  5. As I wrote earlier,

    “And again, however you or others want to write is fine with me. I just like to let others know there is an alternative to the old outline-revise-seek critical input-rewrite-polish system that’s touted in almost every how-to book and website out there.”

    (hands up, palms out) I couldn’t begin to care less how anyone else writes. I’m only paying forward a life-changing experience that happened to me a few years back. I stumbled upon a blog post about something called “writing into the dark” and following Heinlein’s Rules.

    It was all about the value of believing in yourself and the fact that you’ve been absorbing Story your entire life, even before you were aware there was an alphabet. The idea is to trust your CREATive subconscious to CREATE and not second-guess yourself with your rational, conscious, critical mind.

    I didn’t buy in at first. But I didn’t dismiss it out of hand either. Fortunately for me, I was able to set my ego aside, see that what I was doing wasn’t working for me. That’s with working defined as “resulting in success” and success defined as “being a prolific professional fiction writer.”

    I chose to try it, if only to disprove it for myself. Then I would no longer be bothered by it, and I could go back to the plodding method (outline, revise, critical input, rewrite, etc.) that had never worked for me and doesn’t actually work for most people. Most give up and quit.

    To my never-ending surprise, WITD actually worked. And it felt wonderful. Freeing. I thought it was a fluke and tried again. And again. And again.

    Finally, it dawned on me that yup, a guy who had written and published much, much more than I had probably knew more than I did about writing and publishing fiction. Who knew?

    I’ve never looked back.

    I wish the same for all of you. That you will continue to follow “whatever works for you” however you define “works” and “success.” For any other advice from me, click my name below this comment to visit my free instructive website. If you poke around there, you’ll even find my free, almost-daily, downloadable PDF archives since early 2014. As I said, just paying it forward.

    • Glad you found what works for you. Given the various approaches that have been recommended from one source or another, let’s hope every author finds what works for him.

      I have never heard of anyone else using the system I use. I have a background in major construction projects, and we used Critical Path Method (CPM) in planning the job.

      Microsoft Project has incorporated it into its project planning product, and added many other project management things to it. So, I develop the story using a CPM chart with forward and backward dependencies. Scenes can be shifted all over the screen, multiple threads can be linked and coordinated. The story flows from left to right across the big screen.

      Development of the network starts globally, and then becomes more and more specific. Scenes can be written and linked to MS Word. One might think of it as a large visual outline.

      I have no idea if anyone else would find it useful. It was designed for major projects, and I know very successful project managers who love it, and others who hate it. I think some writing programs may have a stripped-down version of the network.

  6. You’re right. It’s an individual choice, and it all boils down to whether you want to tell stories via the conscious, critical mind or via the creative subconscious. All human-generated fiction begins in one of those two places.

    Block-by-careful-block, step-by-polished-step Construction comes from and through the logical, conscious, critical mind. Unique, original Creation comes straight from the creative subconscious.

    The task I’ve taken on myself is to let others know there IS a choice. Frankly, I never hear or see anyone arguing when someone spouts the status quo.

    • Disagree.

      Both avenues you cite can be used at the same time. It isn’t a question of exclusively taking one road or the other. And there is no reason to consider one superior to the other. One might consider a continuum with critical at one end and subconscious at the other. We are all capable of moving along that continuum as needed.

      Nor is unique, original creation something that must come from the creative subconscious. Says who?

      And choice? Of course there is a choice. And it’s good to know what others have chosen and how it has worked for them. I really don’t know what the status quo is. I have seen so many recommendations from people who spout the secret to being a successful author that they all blend together. I’m not even sure what one would argue against.

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