Using Backstory in Chapter 1 Without Adding Backstory

image by KimKin
image by KimKin

I’m rewriting a story to take care of some issues. While struggling with the first chapter, I saw David Corbett’s article, “Backstory From the Front” published in Writers Digest July/August 2016. His concept of how to use backstory is exactly what I needed.

image by AWFG_Berlin
image by AWFG_Berlin

I’m talking about stories that rely on empathy for dramatic impact. In my story, I’ll address what happens and what the events mean to my character. If you write action, superhero, or mystery stories, backstory may not be as important to your plot.



Use of Backstory  


Corbett tells us to “employ the past in service of the present.” I’m not to dump or even ease in backstory in Chapter 1. No flashbacks. Instead, I must know the backstory well so I can employ my character’s backstory in how she navigates the world. And, how she evaluates the effects and meaning of events on her journey to determine what she’ll do next.

baseball-307165_1280So, in chapter one my character’s past needs to be embedded in how she thinks, feels, and assesses circumstances. My goal is to focus on what happens in Chapter 1, letting her be the person her past has created.



Corbett suggests that if our story is about our character overcoming the past then revealing important past events may be required, but they shouldn’t be given in Chapter 1. Corbett advises that necessary backstory should be reserved “until crucial moments of self-evaluation are required to justify a key decision or action.”

In Chapter 1, what should come through about my character from her backstory are:

  • her values, the ones she thinks she should live by, but possibly doesn’t;
  • her attitude, how she reacts to events; and
  • her wants.

Her past has shaped her desire or yearning for her wants, and the reason—a wound, shortcoming, restraint, or flaw—that she hasn’t obtained them yet.

In learning how she’ll deal with present events, Corbett suggests we examine key moments in her life. Here are a few he lists:

  • image by SEVENHEADS
    image by SEVENHEADS
  • guilt
  • fear
  • courage
  • loss
  • love

These key moments mold how my character operates—her sense of what’s

  • possible
  • probable
  • impossible
  • dreams – realistic or fanciful

I’m excited to introduce my character using how her backstory makes her who she is. It’ll be fun to create suspense for the reader until the right moments to reveal important past events as she makes decisions and moves forward in her journey.

Chapter 1: don’t tell backstory; show its effect on how a character presently operates. Click to tweet.

In thinking about your character, what’s one effect backstory has had on how he/she operates?

Flashbacks: When They’re Not Appropriate & Tips for When They Are

image by 304cina62
image by 304cina62

While researching whether or not to use flashbacks, I received warnings from, “Don’t,” to “If you must.”

Reasons to resist flashbacks.

image by OpenClipart-Vectors
image by OpenClipart-Vectors

They often:

  • stem from the author’s wish to explain everything – info dumps of old news.
  • tell information that can be shown through current scenes and dialogue.
  • may indicate, if especially long, that the main story should’ve started earlier.
  • beg that a prologue may be a better vehicle.
  • halt the story, distract the reader, and cause a reader to lose interest.
  • remove suspense, ending the reader’s desire to know a secret.
  • are unnecessary if they don’t advance the present plot, or exist for no good reason.

Reasons to include flashbacks.



  • image by geralt
    image by geralt
    assist a dual-story – chapters alternate between a past time and a present time
  • provide crucial information when there’s no other way to include it.
  • provide backstory in a more dramatic, immediate way than a character in the present telling it.
  • may work for a prologue to reveal something essential to the story that happens several years earlier in the character’s life or in the story world.
  • provide a device to tell the story of a character with memory loss.

Tips for Writing Necessary Flashbacks



  • Don’t use flashbacks as a cop-out to avoid writing difficult present story.
  • Don’t include more than one or two flashbacks.
  • Let go of a merely interesting flashback from a character’s biography.
  • Use flashbacks only after the reader’s engaged in the story and knows the character (after several scenes).
  • Make sure a flashback advances the main story.
  • Make sure a flashback scene, like a main-story scene, has goals, motivations, and resolutions.
  • Give long flashbacks their own chapter or scene.
  • Hold back flashbacks until the reader must know the information – keep the suspense going.
  • Have flashbacks follow exciting scenes so the reader will want to return to the main story.


image by venturaartist
image by venturaartist

Tip 1: Make it clear the character is going back in time.

  • Give the character a trigger – he sees an object, smells a scent, or experiences an action.
  • For stories written in past tense, use past perfect tense a few times when entering the flashback. Once in, switch to past tense until near the end of the flashback, then switch to past perfect a few times. After leaving the flashback, return to past tense. (Limits cumbersome past perfect.)

For stories written in present tense, use the simple past in the flashback.

Tip 2: Write the flashback so it:

  • Serves a purpose – shows what shaped characters into who they are now or shows past story world.
  • Engages the reader.
  • Is limited to key moments.

Tip 3: Write ending sentences that transition the reader and character from the flashback.

  • Use another trigger – abrupt or easing.
  • Change verb tense as mentioned above.

Tip 4: After the flashback, the reader must see the character or story world in a new light as they read forward in the present.

Flashbacks: dangers, benefits & tips for writing necessary ones. Click to tweet.

For what other reasons should we use or not use flashbacks?