The Tricky Question of Backstory

Challenging my views of writing!

Challenging my views of writing!

Following on from yesterday’s request for advice and opinion, I need to ask about back-story. It’s the bane of my life, and Class Act is littered with it. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was, too, in the early drafts, and I solved the problem by starting the novel six months earlier.

That will work to some extent for Class Act, (lovely – another massive re-write! 🙂 ) but there are two incidents in the female protagonist Rebecca’s early life that impact on her current personality, and I don’t know how to integrate them. At present they’re written as flashbacks. Shudder. Unfortunately I actually like how they’re written so it’s easy to become attached to the scenes rather than put them in the bin where they should be.

The problem is I get defensive of my characters and want to explain why they have the flaws they do. But how much detail is necessary or desirable, and when should it be revealed? In The Radleys, by Matt Haig, the back story is cleverly integrated and is also overlaid with the character’s perception, so you start out with a half truth that colours your view of a character’s actions, and that view evolves and changes towards the climax of the novel. Masterful stuff. I’m pretty certain I’m not skilled enough just yet to pull it off without getting in a muddle.

The other problem is defining the novel’s inciting incident. Really, both bits of backstory are. Or the moment where the lead protagonists meet, which is where the novel currently opens. Baby Blues originally started with when the love interests meet, too, and after the rewrite that scene ended up a third of the way through the book. I like it, because you get to know the characters first, but then it blows wide open what the first turning point should be. We make decisions every day which, with hindsight, turn out to be inciting incidents. The job we take,   or the bus we catch that breaks down or gets blown up.

Incidentally, Jami Gold has a great post on the importance of getting these elements or ‘beats’ right in a novel and how defining them isn’t always straightforward! See Why Story Structure Matters. Unfortunately, even with her helpful Beat Sheets, getting the right elements into a story at the right time is (for me) the hardest part of writing.

So, right now my options are revelation through phone conversations with a friend (tricky), adding a prologue (generally advised against), or vague hints that might be missed or misunderstood. It was much easier with Claire in Two-Hundred Steps Home, as she didn’t really have a back story that mattered!

What are your views? Any great examples of how inciting incidents in childhood or early adulthood have been successfully integrated into a story? How much do you need/like to relive past experiences that have influenced a character? When do you need to know the details? Do you need to already care about a character, or do they help you care? Sometimes it feels like I’ve forgotten how to write a novel!

8 thoughts on “The Tricky Question of Backstory

  1. I’m not sure how you’ve handled it already but have you thought of doing it through a character’s self awareness. So if she snaps at somebody because there’s a particular thing that annoys her she can be thinking, damn,she shouldn’t have done that but she knows that ever since x did y to her, she’s had a sensitivity to being told a, b or c. Or maybe another character can be understanding about and remember her saying. Would that work? Then you could still have the flashback. To be honest I think most things ‘work’ in a book if you can write them with enough conviction.

    Good luck with this one though, I feel your pain. The K’Barthan trilogy originally started at the beginning of the third book. It’s strange how you end up juggling the whole story around to get these things right. It’s a bit like one of those magic eye pictures, you stare at it and stare at it and see nothing and then suddenly, when you’re somewhere really inconvenient; on the loo in the middle of the night or at a job interview or something, it all slides into focus.,



    • I’ve been doing the unthinkable (for me!) today and have been planning. With beat sheets and notecards and everything! I’m the ultimate Pantser, but I love this story and want to fix it rather than abandon it. I like the idea of using the backstory proactively, to develop character tension in a scene, rather than as a passive flashback. That’s how Haig uses it in The Radleys, now you’ve said it, and it makes sense. Thank you! I must read your series (it’s on the list!)

      • If you do read mine you’ll see that my efforts are pretty clumsy and I’m on somewhat dodgy ground making suggestions but I hope they work.

        As a fellow pantser, I’m thinking of planning the next one, myself. I just think that once you have a certain amount of the story in your head you can write it more easily. There’s a chap called Chuck Wendig who had a whole thing about plotting versus pantsing on his blog the other day. I’m not sure I can put a link in a comment but if you want it, let me know and I’ll e-mail it.



      • I’ve probably read something similar as
        I dip into his blog from time to time, but I’ll check it out. I’m swinging somewhere in the middle, as I manage to have a little more control over my writing (not always relying on my Muse!) Still a Pantser at heart, but every time I have to rebuild a manuscript I get a bit more determined to plan in future!

  2. Hmmm… Sounds like the inciting incident is when the two meet, but it’s best if the inciting incident comes as quickly as possible. Preferably in the first chapter. So you might want to get the two together first and then start weaving in the backstory.

    • Usually in my first draft the inciting incident is when the two protagonists meet but generally in the revision I end up moving that to the 25% mark, because I like to meet the two of them individually and learn why they are both right and wrong for each other (it’s something Freya North does in her later novels and I love it, although I doubt I pull it off like she does!)
      In this novel the inciting incident will happen to one of the protagonists and I think (at 2am this morning!) I figured what it will be.
      Thank you for your advice.

  3. It’s a fine line. Sometimes too much information about the past will interfere with my inner movie that I have running as I read but then not enough will leave me frustrated for all the points to meet up.

    There’s nothing wrong with flashback if it’s seamless. I agree with you…getting those beats in so they all join the rhythm is difficult.

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