Making Your Reader Love Backstory, Part 3

Part 3 of four posts on backstory by the amazing Randy Ingermanson. Find out how to get his free newsletter full of great information like this at the bottom of the post.

Making Your Reader Love Backstory, Part 3, by Randy Ingermanson
You have at least six good ways to give your reader backstory, when the time is ripe. Here they are:
* Interior monologue
* Dialogue
* Narrative summary
* Flashback
* A nonlinear timeline
* Research

Narrative summary
Sometimes the most efficient way to give the reader some backstory is just to tell her. Narrative summary is efficient.

It's also boring. If you're going to tell the backstory this way, keep it as short as possible and put some effort into making it as interesting as possible, because this is where you're most likely to lose your reader.

Tom Clancy is famous for giving the reader large doses of backstory early in his books. His novel THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER has 12 pages of solid backstory in narrative summary, beginning on page 30.

Did Tom make a mistake? His millions of fans will tell you he got it right. The backstory begins after a very strong start, in which a Soviet submarine commander kills his own political officer at the beginning of a cruise, and then announces a bold and daring mission to his crew. The commander is committing treason, and the reader needs a spectacularly good reason why. The backstory provides that reason. Now the reader is on
the commander's side.

If you're going to use narrative summary, do it after a strong action scene, when the reader needs a bit of a break anyway. Use it to explain some of the questions the reader might have.

Flashbacks are often vilified by writing teachers. I don't see any good reason to avoid flashbacks, so long as the reader feels the need for some backstory.

A flashback is, in fact, a great way to show the reader some backstory using all the techniques of frontstory.

My favorite example of flashback is the series of memories that Professor Snape gives Harry Potter in the 7th and final book of the Harry Potter series. Here at last, after thousands of pages, we learn the real secrets of Snape's past, why he hates Harry, and . . .
why he loves him.

A flashback has an entry point (where the viewpoint character flashes back to the past) and an exit point (where the character returns to the present).

Generally, these are tied together by some object that somehow triggers the memory of the past. In the case of the Potter flashbacks, the triggering object is the "Pensieve" which acts as a portal into other people's memories.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the AdvancedFictionWriting E-zine, with more than 26,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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  Check out the other posts in this series here:
Part 1| Part 2| Part 4  


  1. These posts are great -- I'm learning a lot from them. Thank you!

  2. I always learn so much from Randy. His newsletter is really worthwhile reading.




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