Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Backstory Basics

Businesswoman lifting heavy elephantBackstory can be essential to understanding a character and his/her journey. It can deepen conflict, reveal motivation and elicit sympathy for a hero or secondary character.


Nothing can kill pacing faster than an info-dump of backstory, especially in the first half of a novel.  So when and how best to include it?

Here are 5 tips on how to artfully weave backstory into a middle grade or YA novel:

  1. Hint at your character’s backstory early on, but hold off on revealing it until the information is crucial for readers – or characters – to know.
  2. Reveal it piecemeal. Instead of an extended flashback, pick 2 or 3 key moments you can drop in here and there in small chunks – a sentence or two at a time, rather than paragraphs. This allows your reader to play detective and piece the clues together to form the whole picture.
  3. Have it be activated by something sensory – a sight, smell, sound, taste or feeling. These are powerful memory triggers, and can connect a present experience to a past one, making the details of the backstory feel more germane.
  4. Put it in a moment of interiority. (This only works if you are writing in 1st or close 3rd person, of course.)
  5. Reveal it in as few words as possible, artfully chosen. How many of those lyrical details do you really need? Let go of the writerly padding, no matter how much you love the imagery, and focus on the details that move the story forward. Young readers are less interested in backstory than they are in forward moving action.

For more writing and revision tips and tools such as this, take one of my home-study writing courses – Just Write for Kids, Just Write for Middle Grade or Just Write for Young Adults.

Visit: for details.


3 Responses to “Backstory Basics”
  1. This is excellent advice, Emma. The tip about having backstory be activated by something sensory — yes! That is how it happens in real life. Thank you for the reminder to keep these glimpses into the past brief, germane, and intriguing. I think this is important for adult audiences as well. Long passages of backstory or description can make a reader either close the book or skip ahead (potentially missing some crucial bit of information).

    A question about the moment of interiority — can this not be done in anything other than 1st person or close 3rd? Could you expand on this a bit? Can it ever be done for more than one character?

  2. Emma says:

    Hi Beth –
    Interiority is the literary term for allowing a reader inside a character’s thoughts. It can be used when writing in first person and most forms of close third person (including omniscient, subjective and limited), to reveal the feelings or thoughts of a character in any given moment. It can also be used in second person – but that’s rarely used and very hard to do – as well as with multiple points of view, if they all fall into one of the aforementioned categories. The only time you can’t use it is if you’re writing in objective 3rd person, in which case you are just reporting the facts and not getting inside any character’s head or dealing with thoughts or feelings. Hope that makes sense! (By the way, Lesson 6 in my Just Write for Middle Grade and Just Write for Young Adult courses deals with voice, and we get into this in much greater detail.)

  3. Thanks, Emma! This extra detail helps a lot.

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