Back Story Can Be A Killer

Somewhere along the way during the thirteen years between starting to write fiction and publishing my first novel, I learned about in media res and about backstory. I might have read about it or it might have been in one of the many critiques or classes I sought out, trying to make my writing the best it could.

In media res is the term for starting the story in the middle of the action, not at the very beginning. And backstory is what came before the start of the story for the character, or the events leading up to the start of the story.

Dumps are bad

Twice last week, in two different genres I was pulled out of two books by backstory. In the first chapter of the first book from a small publisher, it is clear that there has been a murder and that one of the two characters who happened to be in place, was going to be investigating. Then inexplicably, chapter two goes back in time and for the next eighty plus pages we are subject to the witty chit chat of the characters discussing their relationship and what brought them to this place where the murder occurred. I don’t know if they ever got around to solving the crime because I stopped reading.

The second book was a thriller from a large publisher. Early on in the dangerous story, we are introduced to a what appears to be a secondary character and the author dives into the previous three of four years of his life showing the difficulty of his love life. Later as the action picks up, we are exposed to another, ten plus pages, discussion of this same secondary character’s love life. We already knew enough about the issues from the original backstory dump and now we have another in the middle of the story. The second back story dump stopped me dead trying to figure out what it meant for the story which seemed to be occurring without this character for the most part. I did finish the book but my attention was split and rather than focusing on the overall story I was trying to figure out why the backstory was important to the plot. Reader, it wasn’t.

Why Use it?

Used properly, sprinkled in small doses, backstory can help the reader understand the character and their motivations. In both the books I’ve described, it seems to have been filler.

I think about backstory a lot in relation to my NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery Series. My goal is to make each book standalone so the reader can read them in any order. To do that, I’m always weighing how much the reader needs to know from the previous books and how to bring it in without stopping the flow. It’s not easy.

What about you?

Have you encountered books bogged down by backstory? How do you handle it in your own books? In your series?

Catherine Maiorisi

Catherine Maiorisi is the author of the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery series featuring Corelli and her partner Detective P.J. Parker–two tough women, fighting each other while solving high profile crimes. A Matter of BloodThe Blood Runs ColdA Message in Blood, and Legacy in the Blood are all available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks narrated by Abby Craden.  

In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.


  1. My rule is always to ask if what I’m about to put on the page will reveal character in relationship to the story or move the story along. Some backstory reveals character, but not in a way that sheds light on the character’s behavior in relation to the mystery/crime/whatever the book is about. That backstory belongs in my notes so that I know the character better, but doesn’t belong on the page.

    I have absolutely given up on some very well reviewed and celebrated books because I couldn’t tolerate the interminable digressions into back story. I wanted story story. But there were also some novels where I would have happily read about the character doing anything at all, whether it related to the main plot or not, because the author had such a great grip on voice and character.

    Lastly, people are more likely to tolerate backstory if it’s juicy, or at least relatable. It needs to be intrinsically interesting in some way, the kind of thing you’d like to tell at a party to amuse your friends, and not simply a list of events in a character’s past life.

    1. Emilya, I agree. I think some authors become so enamored of their characters or their research that they can’t see that the backstory is irrelevant to the story or understanding the character.

      The question I have is where was the editor. The early drafts of my latest romance, Love Among the Ruins, read like a travelogue, and my editors (my wife first then the actual editor) called me out on it. Since it takes place on a month long tour of Italy it is a travelogue to some extent, but they kept me from sounding like a guide book.

  2. I started my WIP with plenty of backstory, and in the process of reconceiving and revising, took it out, just leaking in bits and pieces to let my audience get to know my protagonist. But my new writers’ group is constantly asking questions that were answered by material that’s not there anymore. Seems like sometimes you can’t win.

    1. Catherine, if it seems like something you think they need to know to understand the character or the story, look for a place to slip it in. Maybe in dialogue.

      1. Yes, I’m doing that. But these folks want to know ALL the little character background details which were in the backstory, that I know but common wisdom tells me shouldn’t me there. It’s an interesting puzzle.

  3. Constant struggle. Where the story starts. Whether to drop a body in the prelude and then start chapter 1 leading up to the murder but best get to it quickly. How much to sprinkle in. I like Emilya’s practice. Got to keep the story moving along.

  4. Backstory vs. flashbacks vs. searching memory for clues/reasons why something is going on. Thoughts? I will say that when I hit what appears to be a long-term back story, and I page forward to suddenly notice it goes onandonandon… the book usually hits the floor.

    1. Sharon, whatever technique you use if it’s done well, works. But I’m with you, I stop reading and depending on bad it is, I might not pick up another book by the author.

  5. I know a lot more about my characters’ backstory than ever appears on the page.

    My characters are trauma survivors and there’s usually a past event that is motivating them, so the challenge for me is to show just enough of that to help the reader understand without telling a separate story (that’s what prequels are for). I usually create a second mystery around the character’s backstory — they drop a hint here and there about how this reminds them of the time that X bad thing happened without going into details and gradually the current events affect them more because of the connection to the past. I try to avoid backstory dumps and stories for their own sake.

    Some very big name authors begin with 100 pages of backstory and it makes it hard for me to stay motivated to get to the part where the story actually begins. I’m always surprised when a bestselling author does this, and I only stick with it because I’ve read their previous work and know the story will get good eventually, but I hate it and try not to do anything approximating that in my own work.

    1. Jack, I think that happens a lot when a writer becomes too big to be edited. And, unfortunately, readers are forgiving when they love the series or the author. The rest of us have to be thoughtful about backstory dumps.

  6. Interesting thoughts, Catherine. I think what new authors have to get over is the idea that everything must be explained to the reader. Makes me think of people who do the same thing when telling a story: “Oh, but first you have to understand that…”

    1. I totally agree. My cozy’s protagonist’s past was very messy in parts, and that’s, of course, what formed her character, but no one wants that dumped in their lap all at once. No one wants that. But there are certain points in the story when things occur that bring them to the surface. When I sent the MS out to my Beta readers (all cozy mystery readers) one of them remarked how she liked how Malone’s past was part of the mystery and she couldn’t wait for book #2 to find out more. My tech. editor (a friend who did a spelling, grammar, syntax edit–very detail minded person) however was sort of annoyed/perplexed. ” What prompted her to do X? Why did she reacted like Y? When in her past did Z happen?” It’s a fine line to walk between too much info and not enough–lol!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *