Flashback: Adding Backstory

When you see “Flashback” in front of an article, it means it is an article that originally appeared on Word Museum in the beginning before it was sold and then regained by Lori. We have reposted these articles, because we feel they add great value to the site. Where possible we include the date of the original article.

by: Alternate Realities
Date: 19 May 2001



From Alternate Realities They used to reside at http://members.aol.com/fanltter/AlternateRealities.html. If anyone has a current address please let us know.


Backstory simply means information you include in your book or story that occurred before the story opened. Backstory fills in gaps that the reader needs to know, that he’d worry about all the way through the book without explanation.

If you start with a horrific train wreck, you will need to include details about the cause of the wreck once you finish dealing with the actual wreck, the characters and their injuries, and how they are removed from the site and where they are taken.

Perhaps the wreck was planned by a terrorist group. Then you may wish to show the group plotting to engage in a destructive, headline-grabbing event. You may want the reader to see them plan exactly what they’re going to do, but you’ll describe these scenes after your smasharoo train-wreck opening. Or instead of terrorists causing the wreck, maybe a switchman fell asleep and neglected to switch.

If you’re writing a novel about the apprehension of a mad bomber, a crazy mixed-up loner who lives in a one-room plywood shack with only two windows, no inside plumbing, and no electricity, your backstory will explain why he’s living that way and how he came to become a mad bomber. “Mad bomber” is hardly a career choice that many people would choose.

If your heroine hears from her dying mother’s lips that the man she had always thought was her father was not, then there is backstory in who her biological father is, where he is, and why she’s never been told of him. And when her evil half-brother attempts to murder her in order to inherit his father’s (but not hers) estate, she has to decide how to save herself–not an easy task in pre-Civil War Louisiana.

Think of good old GONE WITH THE WIND. There’s a lot of backstory about Gerald and Ellen, Scarlett’s parents. Mildred Mitchell had to explain to the reader howa well-bred, beautiful, gentle southern girl from an wealthy South Carolina family came to marry an uneducated, rough, shanty Irishman twenty years her senior. We understandperfectly once we’ve read Mitchell’s backstory.

In an autobiography there’s apt to be backstory also. In a family story there’s always something relevant that happened before the opening scene.

Now: How do you “do” backstory? Do you fling it into your novel/family history/autobiography in one huge chunk? A resounding NO. It’s much better to drop backstory into the plot that’s bubbling along by dribs and drabs.

In A BED OF ROSES, another novel developed in class, Cindy Hiday (AKA Elyn Day) opens the book when Dana, much against her will, reports to Michael, her new physical therapist. In the first scene we learn that she was severely injured five months ago in a car accident. When she leaves the session, Michael recalls his conversation with Dana’s doctor, who urged him to accept Dana, despite how difficult a patient she is. We also learn that Michael is independently wealthy though he works in a small, poorly equipped rehab center instead of a state-of-the-art facility. It is only later that we discover how Michael came to be wealthy, why Dana is anary, and why Michael experiences guilt that he constantly tries to atone for. Dana’s anger, Michael’s wealth, and his work at the one-horse clinic all play dynamic roles in the conflict between them, yet we would never be able to accept the conflict without the backstory that sets it up.

On the old DRAGNET TV program, Jack Webb often said, “Give me the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts-” That’s what backstory does. It gives the reader the facts s/he needs in order to make sense of the plot.

How many pages IS that?

The guidelines tell you that the “line” you want to write for is looking for 75,000 to 80,000 words. What’s that in written pages? If You use a pica typesetting and leave a one-inch right margin and a one-and-one quarter inch margin, on the left, then you have room for 60 to 63 lines of text. The rows of text double-spaced should average 24 to 26 lines (not counting the header). Following this format, and with this information, you can use the following “pages-to-words” guide.


No. of Words Pages

50,000 200 55,000 220 60,000 240 65,000 260 70,000 280 75,000 300 80,000 320 85,000 340 100,000 400 115,000 460

13 PIot Motivators

1) Vengeance

2) Catastrophe

3) Love and Hate

4) The Chase

5) Grief and Loss

6) Rebellion

7) Betrayal

8) Persecution

9) Self-Sacrifice

10) Survival (Deliverance)

11) Rivalry

12) Discovery (Quest)

13) Ambition

13 Story Spicers

1) Deception 2) Material Well-Being (increase or loss) 3) Authority 4) Making Amends 5) Conspiracy 6) Rescue 7) Mistaken Identity 8) Unnatural Affection 9) Criminal Action 10) Suspicion Suicide 12) Searching 13) Honor and Dishonor

Writer’s Credo

We hold these truths to be self-evident




Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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