Making Your Reader Love Backstory, Part 4

  Part 4 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 4, 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

A Nonlinear Timeline
Sometimes you simply tell the story out of order. This is different than a flashback, which always has an entry point and an exit point.

When you use a nonlinear timeline, you can insert a time-stamp to indicate the date. Audrey Niffenegger uses a nice twist on this technique in THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, where the dates aren't that important, but the characters' ages are.

You can also use a header that says something like, "Six weeks earlier." John Locke uses this technique in his novel SAVING RACHEL, at the point where he switches protagonists.

The first two-thirds of Locke's book features Sam Case, who is having a very bizarre day -- he's forced to choose whether his wife or his new mistress is going to die.

The final third of the book features a different protagonist, and begins with the words, "Two days earlier, 9:30 am..."

The book then replays things and fills in some essential backstory that Sam Case doesn't know.

In some cases, you can simply jump back a number of years without any warning at all. Mario Puzo does this in Part 3 of THE GODFATHER, which takes Don Corleone
back to the age of 12 and replays in fast-forward his life for several decades to show how he became the Godfather.

Modern readers are smart and don't mind this kind of leaping around through time, as long as they care about the story, and as long as they know where they are on the time-line.

In some stories, the plot revolves around figuring out what happened in the past. This is obviously true for mysteries, where the detective is looking for clues.

It's also true in some kinds of thrillers. An example is THE DAVINCI CODE, where the protagonist must learn the secrets of the holy grail in order to stay alive.

The key thing is to make the research essential to the frontstory. Then success means learning the backstory.

So what do you do if your story has too much backstory up front?

That's not so hard. Follow these steps:

* Make a fresh working copy of your manuscript (so you don't lose what you've got right now).

* Read through your manuscript and mark every piece of backstory. You can do this easily in Word by highlighting it and then inserting a comment that says, "Backstory."

* Now go through your story and interrogate every single piece of backstory to figure out if it's both necessary and minimal. If it isn't, snip it out and save it to a different file -- a "backstory file."

* Read through your story one more time looking for places that are confusing because of missing backstory. Clear up the confusion by inserting the minimal necessary backstory. You can either write it fresh or copy in a piece from your backstory file. You can use
any of the six techniques we discussed above. Choose the one that meets your strategic goals for the story best.

When you finish, you'll have a leaner, more robust story in which every single piece of backstory is just what your reader needs in order to enjoy the frontstory.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced FictionWriting 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

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Check out the other posts in the series here:
Part 1| Part 2| Part 3


  1. I started a book with a young character. Wrote her story for over a hundred pages before I concluded that this part of her life needed to be backstory. So, as you said, I made a copy of it and began to write her as an adult.

  2. And how cool that you know her whole backstory. Even though only a little of that will show in the manuscript, I really think the author's knowledge adds a depth that shows through to the reader.

    Love your blogs, by the way!


  3. It really did add depth. What happens to her as a child drives the entire story.

  4. Sounds like exactly the kind of book I love to read!


  5. I enjoyed the post by Randy Ingermanson because it discussed a problem one will encounter in fiction writing--lightheartedly. (His saying "That's not so hard" instead of going on and on about how much writers struggle with backstory, then offering the steps.)

    Also, I love the name of the blog. :D Very creative, refreshing.

  6. great post. Backstory isn't something we need to avoid entirely, but something that can enhance a story--as long as we know how best to use it.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Lynda. Wonderful blog you have!




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