Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Writer's Wednesday - Baby got back...story

The lovely Stefanie London is here at the Pink Heart Society, to give you some vital tips on back stories...

Back story is something I found confusing—and a little frightening—when I was starting out. I’d done my research and read a tonne of articles about the mistakes that new writers make. One came out in almost every article, blog post and writing craft book that I read:

DO NOT INFO-DUMP / avoid back story in the first chapter / don’t tell us the character’s life history.

As a result I went a little too far in the other direction, where the characters knew nothing about each other’s pasts and neither did the reader.

So how do you navigate the tricky waters of character back story?

What is the point of back story?
Back story is information, key events and important milestones in your character's life that happen BEFORE the story starts. It helps the reader build empathy for your character, it shapes the way your characters act and forms the basis of why they behave the way they do. Without it, your characters actions and decisions may feel hollow, contrived or unmotivated.

For example: my heroine in Only The Brave Try Ballet has been in a relationship with a controlling man before, so when the hero tries to help her in a way that she perceives to be controlling, she pushes him away. Without knowing about her past the reader might think she’s simply being unkind or ungrateful, but knowing that she’s trying to protect herself makes her actions more believable.

What’s wrong with an info-dump? Doesn’t this get the reader up to speed quickly?
In a word…it’s boring. Slabs of text talking about the past don’t move the story forward, your reader wants to know what’s happening NOW, not what happened in the past. Too much back story can affect the pace of your story and it can cause the reader to lose interest.

How should I use back story?
I like to think of the story as the main meal and back story as the seasoning. The story is the most important part, it’s why your readers picked up your book. Back story enhances your characters and makes them more complex and 3D. But it’s important to remember that too much seasoning will ruin any dish. There are a few things to consider when writing back story:

  1. Back story doesn’t need to happen up front, you can sprinkle it through so the character is revealed and deepened as the story progresses. This is a great way to share the information that might have compiled your info-dump in a way that doesn’t slow the pace of your book.
  2. The reader is smart, you don’t need to give them the same piece of information over and over. If you mention that the heroine had a bad relationship with her father you don’t need to repeat the exact same piece of information two chapters later, but you can build on it by providing more detail specifically where it relates to the story or a decision your characters has to make.
  3. The reader doesn’t need to know everything. I like to know a lot about my characters—what type of school they went to, what grades they got, how they get along with their family, what the important milestones are in their life, how they like to dress, what they read. Not all of this information will make it into the story, but I like to know everything about a characters past because it helps me to write them more authentically. Sometimes back story is something that will stay in your head or in your planning document, only put the information into the story that needs to be there. 
What about back story and secondary characters? 
It depends on the book. If you want to set up a secondary character to be the hero or heroine in a subsequent book you don’t necessary need to put their back story into the current book – save it for their book!

Generally speaking if you’re writing a category romance secondary characters are kept to a minimum, both in number and the frequency in which they appear in the book. If you’re writing a single title you have more room to move. A single line with something intriguing about the character might be all you need to hook the reader’s interest for the next book. Don’t give away too much now.

What are your tips when it comes to writing back story? How do you know when it’s too much?

Stefanie London writes about real women with real problems and the gorgeous men who help them find love. She also loves writing about ballerinas.

You may find the occasional llama reference in her books.

Breaking the Bro Code is Stefanie London's latest release with Harlequin KISS.

You can find out more about Stefanie's books and get a sneak peek of Chapter One of Breaking the Bro Code and Only The Brave Try Ballet over at her website.


  1. Great post Stefanie! I love the seasoning analogy, Exactly how I think of it... sprinkling it in.

    1. I agree, LOVE this analogy.

      And now my mind is trying to split different types of backstories into seasoning categories...

      Heartbreak totally tastes like cinnamon. And methinks that PTSD would be black pepper. #foodgeek

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I'm glad you both liked it!! Heartbreak would totally taste like cinnamon haha

  2. Great post, Stef. It's a balancing act trying to figure out just how much backstory to give and when to give it. I always put too much in the first draft and then cut it back to just enough in revisions lol

    1. Luckily you can always cut it out, I know a lot of writers put it in to get to know the characters and then slice it back out in edits :)

  3. Yes. I was guilty of Backstory Dump at the start of my book, and I had to cut quite a bit out. You are right Stefanie, it is difficult trying to work out just where to put it, and how much to give the reader at the time. You want them to know all that you know about the characters, so they can love them like you do.

    Great Post.


    1. haha we do become attached to our characters don't we?