Using Backstory in Chapter 1 Without Adding Backstory

by | Writing | 8 comments

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?

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  1. Jane Foard Thompson

    Kiva, in my Pre-Colombian historical WIP, grew up in a peaceful, idyllic island which was invaded by cannibals. She flees, but battles with her desperate need for safety and the desire for a relationship in a peaceful family envcirnonment

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Hi Jane, Kiva is wary of men too, if I remember correctly.

      • Jane Foard Thompson

        Yes, that’s her fear element. I really struggle putting all that in a sentence or two. All help is welcome!

  2. Delia Latham

    Love this one, Zoe! I always struggle with how much to reveal, and when. Sometimes I use a prologue. Yes, I know many writers/editors frown on them, but now and then, a single scene from the h/h’s past can reveal a lot about who they are now, why they make certain decision, how they think and feel about various things in their lives.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Hi Delia, In my research on flashbacks, a prologue was mentioned as a better alternative to including flashbacks in the story.

    • Mary Hawkins

      I rarely have time to comment – or even read blogs I’d often like to. This is so very timely for me, Zoe, and so glad read it
      I have been battling with a revision of a spin off from my Damaged Dreams novel. I fell into the trap of knowing why my hero was not lovable in that first chapter, but not giving backstory just why he is now like that so the reader could like him enough to want to keep reading. I’ve decided now to do a prologue.
      Thank you so much for this blog.

      • Zoe M. McCarthy

        Mary, your struggle sounded so much like mine with my first chapter and an unlikeable character. After I read Corbett’s article, I realized none of my backstory in the first chapter was necessary. I could feed it in later. But it wasn’t critical to making my character likeable. In my case I needed to make her more likeable.

  3. Mary Hawkins

    And we both are reminded that we never stop learning in this sometimes crazy writing career. Looking forward to your book!

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