Show & Tell: Book Doctor on Backstory

The Book Doctor offers writing advice for the self-publishing author:

Q: What is back story?

A: Backstory (or back story) refers to the background of characters, the biographical information that made them what they became. It explains why they do the things they do or want the things they want. It gives readers an understanding of the motivations and goals of a character. In essence, it tells a story that happened before the one they are reading; hence, backstory.

Backstory can be revealed through flashback, thoughts, narrative, or dialogue. Personally I prefer backstory to be revealed through dialogue, which inherently shows, rather than tells, as you’ll see in my examples.

Let’s say that at age forty, Mary is studying to become a medical researcher, and you want readers to know why. I’ll give a few examples of ways to fill in with backstory. Each of my examples could go on a little longer and give more detail, but backstory is best when it comes out in short bits that do not halt the flow or kill the pace of the story.

Backstory through Narrative:

Mary had an eight-year-old daughter who had died of lung cancer, although the doctors were baffled about how such a young girl could have contracted the disease.

Backstory through thoughts or flashback:

Mary lifted the wilted rose, brought it close to her face, and sniffed it. The powdery texture and sweet scent took her back to her daughter’s hospital bed, the dying roses on the bedside table, while the child struggled for breath. What went wrong? How could an eight-year-old die from lung cancer?

Backstory through Dialogue:

“I don’t talk about it much,” Mary told her school administrator, “but I had an eight-year-old daughter who died of lung cancer. We never knew what caused it, how she could get lung cancer at her age. I want to discover something that will keep others from going through what we went through.”


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Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at http://www.zebraeditor.com

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