Posted by: nancycurteman | October 7, 2010

Backstory: 10 Things a Mystery Writer Should Know

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In mystery novels, backstory is essential to the story plot. The life experiences of characters are what formed their values, attitudes and beliefs which in turn explain the origins of the motives and behaviors when faced with the conflict inherent in a mystery novel. Here are ten things every mystery writer should know about backstory.

1. It’s essential to determine how much backstory is necessary for the story. Do not over explain past events. Choose only those events needed to explain a character’s emotions and actions.

2. It’s absolutely critical to decide where and how to insert background information into  a fast-moving mystery novel without stalling the story.

3. Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know as much backstory as the writer does so keep backstory to a minimum.

4. You must make the past (backstory) important to the reader by making it the vehicle that ties together the mysterious threads of the current action.

5. Weave the backstory into the plot in small dribbles revealing more bits of information as the story progresses. This keeps the reader wanting more.

6. Deliver backstory in a scene where it fits naturally into the story. Tie the information to some type of action that’s happening.

7. Try not to present backstory in the first chapter. You need to open your novel with action that propels the story forward. By its very nature, backstory is not action and it does not move the story forward.

8. Backstory should provide information that engages your readers’ imagination and forces h/er to ask more questions.

9. Flashback is a useful vehicle for presenting backstory but something in the scene must trigger it.

10. Keep backstory short and to the point. Never wax poetically in the past while the story halts and the reader dozes off.

Other writing tips:

9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel Global Mysteries

4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”
How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel?
How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story?
How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel
Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel
What is Literary Style?
What is Theme in Literature?
7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth
7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels
Developing Characters is No Mystery
Author’s Voice: How to find it?
What is Story Structure?


  1. thanks again. Good list.


  2. Great tips. Thanks, NC!


  3. Thank you for your tips on backstory. They all make perfect sense. Like foundation stones for a building, they are necessary but must not stand out or detract from the building design. Backstory should quietly and unobtrusively be there. Now I must check my MS.


    • Great analogy! Backstory is indeed an important part of the foundation for a story.


  4. Fantastic tips Nancy. The way you explain things, makes perfect sense. Better than any of the so called “rules” about this I’d read. Your post couldn’t have come at a better time and I have to say thanks the Nancy from Spirits Lights the Way as she was the one to point me in your directions (and all this time, I was convinced I had subscribed to your blog D’OH!


    • Agatha,
      Thank you for your kind words. Great to hear from you.


    • You’re welcome, Alannah! I love the internet web.


  5. I;ve been planning my Nanowrimo which is a mystery thriller. I will be visiting often to remind myself of all the little things that are important. Thanks for the great post.


  6. […] writing tips: Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel Global […]


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