Posted by: victanguera | November 5, 2011

Backstory: NaNo Prompt #2

Yes, backstory. Early on in writing, I somehow got the idea that backstory was a terrible thing. That it included huge info dumps and bored the reader. But with writing, and even more so with revisions, I’ve come an understanding of how important backstory is to the present story. My favourite stories weave in an event from the past that impacts on the present story and where the main character could potentially wind up (good or bad).

In the first paragraph of Lord of the Rings, we learn that people believed Bilbo had come back from previous adventures with untold treasure, that he was older than most hobbits, and that the other hobbits believed trouble would come of his never appearing to age. The first time I read this book, I was about 16 years old. I’d read L’Engle, Heinlein and other Science Fiction writers. But not much fantasy. That line about not aging and the trouble it could bring was enough to interest me. If Tolkein had just jumped right in to the party and Gandalf’s arrival, I’d not have known why I should care.

Take one of your favourite books off the shelf and read the first page or so. How much of that hints at back story? Pay attention to the way a writer introduces a question from the main character’s past. For example, in White Oleander, the main character, Astrid, says: “My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was still here, that the wind would stop blowing.” That entire section is backstory. We don’t know who Barry is (and he obviously is no longer part of their lives), we don’t know why the wind affects her mother, and we don’t know how things had been. But we know (or hope), we will find out.

So what do you know about your character’s past? How does that past affect the present story? Is there something that carries over from your character’s past that changes their present (like the ring Bilbo found). How can you add those details in a way that grips a reader?


  1. Backstory is like hot pepper. It can improve the taste if sprinkled throughout, but if you get a big mouthful all at once, it can be too much.

    Okay, metaphors aren’t really my thing, but you get the idea. The thing that made the backstory in Lord of the Rings all the stronger was that it was all based on stories he’d written or notes he’d made (in detail), so it all worked. There’s a solid feeling when the reader knows the backstory will hold together. Then you don’t have to worry about it, and you can concentrate on the story being told.

    And backstory /= infodump. Infodumping is bad, though readers are apparently less worried about it than writers: look at the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The first 100 pages are almost all infodumps, and there are more later. But I wouldn’t advise any young writer to follow Larsson’s example, since they wouldn’t be starting with his advantages.

    • That’s actually an excellent analogy. Also, spots with no pepper can seem kind of bland and tasteless. Yep, more I think about it, more I like your metaphor. Tolkien did such a great job building his world that every piece is believable. Still haven’t read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I’ve heard that about the beginning. Okay, off to add pepper to my NaNo.

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