Backstory Can Solve Your Story Problems

No really, it can!

I’ll show you how.

Backstory Can Kill Story…

Backstory…ugh.

Or yay?

Love it or hate it, backstory is essential to building a powerful, memorable character. And yet backstory can make writers pull out their hair.

Why does backstory present such a problem?

  • It can slow the pace, bogging down here-and-now story with then-and-there facts;
  • It’s easy to use backstory as a crutch, delivering information instead of creating emotions in the reader;
  • It can be underdeveloped or unrelated to the unfolding story, reducing its power & causing readers to lose interest.

The truth is, authors often write backstory to satisfy ourselves, not the reader. We relay facts and information, hoping data will stand in for emotional investment. But backstory that ‘tells’ readers why they should care isn’t Story; it’s information.  Now the reader knows something.

Fiction readers don’t read to know. They read to feel.

So how do you give people all the Feels without drowning them in details they don’t care about?

How do you balance the need to explain the “whys” with the primary need to drive the story forward?

How do you make the reader care?

Well, the good news is…

…Backstory Can Also Save Story

Lucky us, backstory can also save story.

Well-crafted backstory will create powerful characters with beautiful arcs. It can increase stakes, ramp up the plot, add tension, and it hands you theme.

I know!

In fact, powerful backstory can turn your protagonist into a hero (hero = all genders.)

“But how??” you ask.

I’ll show you.

I’ve got loads of tips & strategies for crafting must-read backstory. The one we’re covering today is how to make your backstory compelling.

Make Your Backstory Compelling

Make It Compelling

What do I mean, ‘compelling’?

I don’t mean ‘compelling’ in a generic way. I mean, very specifically, it’s backstory that compels your character.

It’s made them who they are in pivotal ways.

It’s created emotions & core beliefs inside the character, and those emotions and beliefs compel the character to act in certain ways in the story.

It compels them to pursue their story goal.

It’s part of what compels them to keep pursuing it when the going gets tough.

And in the end, it’s what they have to come to terms with to make their final transformation.

The Inciting Incident Isn't Enough

The Inciting Incident Isn’t Enough

The Inciting Incident introduces the main conflict and gets the romantic leads together (or in a sequel, starts tearing them apart). It gives you a story goal.

It doesn’t give you why that goal matters so much to the character.

Inciting incidents turn the key and start the story.

They don’t drive the story.

They don’t drive your hero or heroine.

Backstory does.

It's Personal Now

It’s Personal Now

Compelling backstory gives the story goal meaning. The goal isn’t just the goal. It means something to the protagonist.

Something about them.

If they fail, it means _____________.

If they succeed, it means ______________.

You might recognize this by another name: Internal stakes.

Yep.

Backstory gives you internal stakes. (Told you!)

Story Fuel

Story Fuel

When you have a compelling backstory, the goal means something more than itself.

The corporate CEO isn’t just pushing hard to complete the biggest, most questionable buyout his company ever did simply to buy another, bigger car. He’s doing it to ensure he’ll never be weak—or vulnerable—again.

Where on earth would something learn such a hard a lesson about power & vulnerability?

Backstory.

The heroine isn’t just saving the family ranch.  She’s proving she isn’t a failure.

The teenager isn’t just trying to win the student council election. He’s trying to find a way to belong.

The warrior isn’t just saving a village. He’s making amends for past errors of judgment that destroyed someone he loved.

The high-powered DA isn’t just fighting injustice. She’s going after all the people who wronged her as a kid.

Or a billion+1 other possibilities.

The key is, it means something very personal, very private, and very deeply-seated to your character.

From that, you get character fuel.

Story fuel.

Motivation & Backstory

Motivation & Backstory

Look, the deal is this: your romantic leads need to have story goals. They need something they want to achieve.

You, gorgeous and evil Author, are going to put obstacles in their way. Lots of them. Soul-crushing, mind-bending, hurt-y obstacles.

That means a lot of reasons to quit.

You need a character who, when faced with the impossible task, the unbeatable enemy, or their deepest fear, doesn’t say, “Wow. This is worse than I thought. It’s too hard/scary/insurmountable. I’m out. Gonna head home & watch binge Game of Thrones (Seasons 1-5).”

Nope. Fiction isn’t real life. It’s hyper-life.

You need a highly motivated character. Someone who’s going to be stubborn as hell between 25%-75% of the story, determined to achieve their goal.

Of course, it it may be a terribly misguided goal. Our romantic leads, bless their hearts, often pursue things they shouldn’t, or pursue things in ways they shouldn’t. In fact, great characters almost always have to change some fundamental aspect of themselves–and their goal–late in the story.

But even here, how do you keep a character pursuing a misguided goal for 75% of the story? Especially once they realize pursuit is going to destroy the romance?

Backstory.

And in the end, at that Dark Night of the Soul moment, you need a character who is so motivated by the romance that they narrow their eyes and say (metaphorically), “I’m going to fix this/stop this/change this.” (i.e. do “The Thing” that will be required in Act III)

i.e. You need a highly motivated character. Someone who keeps going when the hits keep coming and the odds are stacked against them.

You don’t get that kind of power from an Inciting Incident.

The Little Things Matter

The Little Things Matter

Authors are often pretty good at this macro level work–tying our protagonists’ goals to their backstory. It’s generally what we learn about when we study backstory and story.

But backstory can do more.

You’re missing out on a lot if all their backstory did was make them rail against injustice, marry the wrong person, or be too scared to ever love again.

Make your backstory work harder. It can do a lot.

Why not make it inform the kind of car they drive, where they live, the food they eat, or how they dress?

Why not make it give them strong opinions about pop culture or the petrochemical industry?

It can compel them to never use a smart phone because they are fanatical about not being tracked. (“Why?” the reader whispers to herself).

It can make them wear flashy clothes because they like to be the center of attention. (“Why?”)

It can make them mistrust anyone who drives a sports car. (Why?)

It can make them do their grocery shopping at night because they don’t want to see anyone & have to engage in chit-chat. (Why?)

It can make them decorate their apartment with dozens of lamps because they never want to be in the dark again (Why?)

It can make them devote an entire room to their shoe collection because shoes are the gateway to the soul. (Why? And why do you need so many gateways???)

Etcetera.

Dig deep for these sorts of details. They not only give your character dimension & unique angles, they perform the essential story task: add tension.

How?

Backstory Raises Questions Readers Want To See Answered

Backstory Raises Questions Readers Want To See Answered

When you do the kinds of things we’ve been talking about, you not only craft a rich inner world for your protagonist.  You also automatically, organically create questions in the reader’s mind.

Specifcially, you’re building the all-important “Why?” question.

Why is he like this? Why would she do that?

You know why that question is so important to sucessful drama?

Because it makes the reader want the answer.

You know what they do when they want an answer?

They turn the page.

i.e. A Page-turner.

Yay!

The ‘little things’ we’ve been talking about are basically your character’s ‘tell.’ i.e. They tell others something’s going on. They tell the reader something is going on.

That adds tension.

But the double-chocolate bonus is that now, the reader WANTS your backstory.

She’s going to to have all those “Why?” questions, and she’s going to want the answers. That means, when you finally DO deliver facts & data about your protagonist’s backstory, it’s not an info dump anymore.

You’ve turned it into Story.

Done right, backstory is like a little detective tale. You drop in clues & hints when you have your character think, say, and do certain things in the story.

And when you finally give the reader the ‘whys’ and ‘whodunits’ of those things, it’s a satisfying beat.

You’re no longer slowing the pace or derailing forward momentum.

You’re telling Story. With backstory.

Good times.

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I hope so!

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