4 Common Backstory Blunders and How to Avoid Them

4 Common Backstory Blunders and How to Avoid Them

By on Feb 16, 2016 in Fiction, Writing & Editing


Backstory is what happened to your protagonist and the world (if you are writing a science-fiction or a fantasy story), before the beginning of the novel. Backstory can be told in many different ways. The easiest way is to tell a part of the backstory through a prologue. Then, you can give a lot of information at the beginning of chapter one. You can also dump a lot of information upon your readers through informational dialogue or random flashbacks. There is nothing wrong with these methods of exposing backstory. The problem is that when using these methods to tell the backstory, you can easily make a lot of blunders, which will probably bore the readers to sleep. And below, we’ve shown you why.

1. Prologue blunder

Prologues can be a hit or miss, depending on how they are handled. For example, if you write a prologue that didn’t involve the protagonist at all, and it happened years ago, it’s a miss. Why is it a blunder? It’s a blunder if there isn’t a direct connection between the protagonist and what happened in the prologue. However, you can avoid this blunder by connecting the prologue to the first chapter – maybe it’s the same place, or maybe the person we saw in the prologue is related to the protagonist, they died mysteriously and the protagonist has to discover the truth.

2. Chapter 1 without action

As previously stated, it is a bad idea to open the first chapter by revealing backstory about the protagonist that is relatively unimportant to what they are doing at that precise moment. A novel depicts a journey that is catalyzed by a certain event: it can be a phone call, a newspaper story, a surprise visit. Then, the protagonist decides to go on the journey that is the plot, and along the way, slowly and when it matters, you can tell the readers the age of the protagonist, what his or her life used to be like before, and you can show why that matters.

3. Informational dialogue

Dialogue is a very interesting way of conveying backstory. For example, let’s say you have revealed in the first few sentences of chapter 1 that the protagonist witnessed something traumatic at a very young age. Then, in chapter six, when they meet a person and reveal the same thing to them, the effect is lost. But if you haven’t conveyed that piece of information in the first chapter, then the dialogue in chapter six becomes a revelation. How can this become a blunder? If both the protagonist and the person they are conversing with know what happened, then the dialogue is stilted. In fact, if you read it out loud, you will realize that there is no need (beyond informing the readers of what happened) for them to have that conversation at all.

4. Unnecessary flashbacks

Flashbacks always have a trigger, or at the very least, they should. A young woman walks into a public bathroom and the dim lighting reminds her of how a masked man assaulted her in a similar public bathroom years ago. Where is the blunder? The blunder lies in the reason for the flashback. Is it necessary to the plot? Is it foreshadowing something? Or is it just something that happened to her, something that she got over, and is only relevant as part of her backstory? If the answer to the last question is yes, then the flashback is unnecessary. First of all, the woman wouldn’t be suffering from these flashbacks if she got over the assault. Second, if the importance of that bit of backstory is to show that the woman is a strong survivor, then the event can be relayed in a different manner. When it comes to flashbacks, you must remember that they must always have a reason, and to show them in the right moment of the story.

Image credit: Pixabay

Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.


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