How to Use Backstory to Keep Readers Reading

by K.M. Weiland, @KMWeilandV8374c_JaneEyre.indd

Backstory is a weapon. And just like any weapon, it can end up doing more harm than good to those who wield it without proper experience and care. But in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what it’s capable of and how to wield it to advantage, backstory can take even ordinary stories to extraordinary places.

Arguably, the most important function of backstory is its ability to hook readers’ curiosity. Forget explaining the protagonist’s past and what motivates him. Try not explaining it. When we let readers know there’s something delicious and dark in a character’s past, without telling them what that something is, we’ll hook their curiosity so deeply they’ll keep reading just to solve the mystery.

Charlotte Brontë understood how to wield the weapon of backstory as well any author. In her beloved Gothic romance Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic), she creates almost her entire plot out of the tantalizing hunt for the backstory. What can you learn from her and how can you apply it to your own novel? Start by answering the following questions.

What Is Your Backstory?

Before you can use backstory to hook readers, you first have to have a backstory. When creating your characters’ histories, look beyond just the obvious necessities of birthplace and parents. Look for secrets. Look for tragedy and shame. Look for hidden motivations. You don’t want to bore readers with tedious home videos. You want to thrill them with tabloid-worthy escapades.

Protagonist Jane Eyre’s tragic backstory is shared straight-up (for the most part). However, the story is powered by her need to uncover the shocking history of her mysterious employer Mr. Rochester. Something strange and possibly supernatural is afoot in the tower of Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, and he hints to Jane, again and again, that the mystery is all tied up in the sins of his youth. What better incentive for readers to keep reading?

How Does Your Backstory Power the Plot?

Even relatively mundane backstories can capture readers’ attention, but only if they matter to the story as a whole. An outrageous skeleton in the family closet only becomes interesting if it affects the outcome of the central conflict. Why does the discovery of the backstory matter to the protagonist? How will it help or hinder him in obtaining his main story goal?

Mr. Rochester’s history isn’t important just because Jane happens to be curious about him. As it turns out, its revelation—in one of the most enduringly and delightfully shocking moments in literature—affects Jane’s every hope of happiness and love. Readers are more than just curious about Brontë’s backstory; they care about the backstory because of how sharply it will turn the plot and affect all the characters.

What Is Your Backstory’s Hook?

Once you’ve come up with a great backstory and figured out why it is an integral piece within your main plot, you then have to artfully plant its hook. You must let readers know there is a great backstory without giving too much away. One or two solid details will often be enough to get the ball rolling, especially if you solidify their importance by making some of the characters adamant about hiding the past, just as other characters are adamant about uncovering it.

Brontë builds her hook into the very walls of Thornfield Hall. From the moment Jane arrives in the symbolically dark and dusty manor, readers sense something is afoot. The housekeeper warns Jane to stay away from the tower, Rochester himself speaks of the great mistakes of his youth, and creepy laughter wafts through the halls at night. With minimum effort, Brontë hooks her readers for the long haul.

How Can You Tantalize Readers With Clues?

After that first hook, keep the clues coming. To some extent, you can repeat some of those clues, since all you’re needing to do is keep reminding readers of their curiosity. But eventually, you’re going to have to add new information. The trick, of course, is to provide new clues to whet the readers’ appetite without giving away the whole mystery.

A good rule of thumb on backstory is to avoid sharing information until it becomes vital to the story. Clues need to be more than just breadcrumbs of information; they need to each be catalysts that drive the plot.

Brontë is one of the best at scattering her clues. She deftly adds new information, leading readers right up to the brink of the truth, only to cleverly misdirect them into believing what they think is the truth can’t possibly be right.

Why Will Your Backstory’s Payoff Matter to the Story?

Readers wait throughout your entire story to reach the truth about the backstory. You can’t afford to disappoint them. This is why it’s so important to come up with a humdinger of a backstory in the beginning. If you tantalize readers with promises of shocking discoveries only to back off in the end and say, “Surprise! The butler did it!”—they’ll probably chuck your book across the room.

Brontë perfectly times the revelation of Mr. Rochester’s backstory. The revelation arrives at the crucial Third Plot Point (at the end of the Second Act), which allows it to be the catalyst that powers Jane’s decisions and actions throughout the climactic Third Act. Every bit as important as the timing, Rochester’s backstory is just as powerful and moving as Brontë promised her readers it would be. Anything less, and we would have been disappointed. Instead, we were transported.

Powerful backstory can elevate otherwise commonplace stories to astonishing heights. Without Rochester’s backstory, Jane Eyre is just another nice tale of a poor orphaned governess falling in love with her wealthy employer. With that backstory, it has become a timeless classic that has thrilled and moved centuries’ of readers. With the right backstory, your story could do the same!

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives K.M. Weilandprimarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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39 thoughts on “How to Use Backstory to Keep Readers Reading

  1. I’m already tantalised by this post so I shall definitely be reading more from the author. It’s a wonderful feeling for a writer when the backstory takes on a life of its own. We owe a lot to Charlotte and Jane.

  2. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting K.M.

    K.M. – You’re right about the importance of backstory. It matters! And the author has to really take two decisions about it. First, the author has decide exactly what the backstory will be. Then, the author has to decide when and how to release that backstory in the novel. When it’s done well, it certainly can be a terrific tool.

    1. Absolutely. This is a really great and simple approach. My rule of thumb on releasing backstory is always to wait until the last possible moment before readers will be confused without knowing it.

  3. I haven’t amped up the interplay between backstory and story well enough in my writing so far. This is not just a good explanation but a good reminder why it’s important, why it adds value.

  4. As a reader, the backstory does matter. It’s one of the things that keeps me as a reader coming back to a series to learn a bit more about that backstory with each installment. Great post.

  5. Katie–
    As someone who reviewed your terrific Annotated Jayne Eyre, I can confirm how truly useful to writers it is. Your analysis of a classic–in terms meaningful to writers rather than to scholars–demonstrates how a great book follows guidelines that all contemporary writers should understand.
    All I would add to your valuable post is this: for writers to get the most out of backstory’s potential, they must first create characters that really matter to readers. When a character fascinates, anything and everything becomes important about him or her.

    1. Absolutely agree with this. You can’t have good backstory without a good character – although I also think we could argue that in reverse. So glad you enjoyed The Annotated Jane Eyre!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! Backstory really is the backbone in a lot of ways, especially when we start considering the causes and motives for the character’s arc.

  6. I’m not against back story, when done right. I’ve seen some back story being used as just filler and it’s so boring. Usually a reader just skips the parts. And I’ve seen back story that’s more interesting than the main story. Great article.

    1. Actually, “boring” is a great litmus test for whether or not the backstory belongs in the story at all. Although authors are notorious for thinking their backstory is more interesting than readers think it is!

  7. Hi K.M.! Fab post, and so timely for me (I’m taking out a lot of explanations as I write the next draft).

    I have a question: what do you do about backstory in a series? I’m talking about the history that characters have with one another from previous books, which may not necessarily have a hook or surprise for the current story, but is nonetheless important, as it motivates the characters to act and feel the way they do. Series readers would understand without explanation or backstory, but first-time readers wouldn’t.

    Thanks to both you and Elizabeth!

    ~Kathy

    1. It’s actually surprising how little backstory you can get away with in a series. Treat it with the same rule of thumb that you would backstory in a standalone story – don’t reveal it until it’s absolutely necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on. You’re not going to want to “tease” it like you would in a standalone book, but there’s no reason to share it until it becomes necessary.

  8. Excellent post, thanks for sharing! Back story is essential yet it’s one of the hardest things to manage successfully without slowing down the story’s pace. I’d like to note however that back story was easier to handle back in Dickens’ days, when people had more time to read and were more patient with long expository narratives! In our time of snappy, fast videos and online news, we’ve lost that quality of patience and willingness to take the time to enjoy digging into the psychological depth of a novel’s characters…We want instant result, fast-paced stories and page-turners, all things that make bringing that famous back story all the more difficult!

    1. It’s true. Storytelling has evolved into a much leaner machine than it was in ye olde days. I’m reading Les Miserables right now – one of the 25 longest novels ever written. Think any of us would get away with that today?

  9. Wonderfully timed post, thank you.

    I think I managed backstory pretty well in my first three books but have currently been struggling a bit in my WIP. This is a series building up to a climatic finish in Book 6, with tempting and hopefully not so obvious clues planted here and there in the first 3 novels. The WIP, Book 4, introduces one of the most important characters in the entire series and this is where the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Trying to do backstory without it being a massive info dump is quite challenging.

    AD

    1. One of my all-time favorite examples of how to do backstory well is Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Granted, it’s a short story, so it has significantly less backstory to deal with. But it’s a brilliant example of how to introduce the backstory at just the right time and in just the right amount to buoy the story instead of dragging it down.

  10. Love backstory. I spend my preparation time creating a complicated back story along with complex characters and a solid setting. That’s my planning. I give my characters an inciting incident arising from the back story and set them loose on stage to solve, uncover, discover the backstory. I do not plot the book part of this story. I have key points that must happen but allow the characters and the events and results to drive the story. For me it’s a balance beween needing to plan and desiring to write creatively and freely. The results so far (book 1 and 2 in the Caleb Cove Mysteries) are receiving positive feed back from my readers. From the writer’s point of view – I am having fun.

    1. That’s very much my approach to. The character’s arc – and therefore the propulsion of the main plot – is always buried in the happenings of the backstory.

  11. Emerging from a deep writing binge to discover this post a few days late–but I’m so glad I read it because it explains what the heck I’ve been trying to do with backstory in my own writing–and it ties in with Elizabeth’s previous post on motivation (which I’ve also read just now).

    To add my two cents’ worth to the discussion, backstory remains relevant as long as it is tied to motivation, for both the antagonist and the protagonist. When that happens, a whole multidimensional world evolves, with a minimum of padding.

    And thanks for the reminder to have something juicy in the backstory–I have a strong tendency to be a pedantic fuddy duddy, and must remind myself that most readers’ boredom thresholds are much lower than mine!

    1. This is a super-important point. If the backstory *doesn’t* influence or explain the character’s motivation, then it’s probably too extraneous to the main plot to even deserve a mention.

  12. This was an interesting article. I’m looking forward to holding my novels up to its “light”. I highly recommend the Disney animated series “Phineas and Ferb” for a wonderously humorous portrayal of the backstory and other elements of creative writing. As the series progresses, the backstory becomes so important to one of the characters, that it takes on the role of a recurring character itself. It is brilliantly done with one backstory often requiring the telling of or reference to backstories to the backstory. Sometimes the backstory is told with multimedia or song and dance. It really is worth seeing.

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