Posted by: nancycurteman | April 12, 2011

4 Killer Backstory Mistakes Mystery Authors Make

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Backstory or character history relates to events that occurred before the novel began. Backstory is an essential element of your mystery novel. It enables your readers to gain a better understanding of the behaviors, attitudes, values and actions of your characters. But beware! It’s easy to mismanage backstory. Here are 4 killer mistakes mystery authors make when writing a novel.

1. Backstory in chapter 1.  Writing backstory in chapter 1 starts a novel with “story drag.” Backstory slows the pace of your novel because these events are retro. They direct the reader’s attention backwards instead of forward. In addition, readers cannot connect the backstory events provided in the first chapter to anything in the novel because the story has barely begun. Most readers won’t remember that first backstory-filled chapter (yawn), so they may not connect it with later story action.  Better to have the characters remember an event when triggered by story action.

2. Providing dramatic backstory information in a mundane scene. How much more exciting to drop a critical bit of backstory into the middle of a scene full of suspense, conflict or crisis.  This gives your reader a chance to take a quick breath and make an immediate connection between the backstory info and the current scene. Knowing a bit about your character adds mystery and piques your reader’s interest if presented in appropriate scenes.

3. Dumping too much backstory, too soon. Backstory will have much more impact if provided in small doses that create questions, or presented at a moment of conflict. As a mystery writer, you need to know as much as possible about your characters before you begin your novel. Not true for your readers. Provide only enough backstory to intrigue your mystery fans. Readers only want to know enough backstory to understand most of what is happening in the front story. Reveal backstory only when your readers need to know it to follow where the mystery puzzle is going. Add details or hints as you move through the story then expand upon them in later scenes.

4. Telling backstory. Providing backstory either in author narration or  long drawn out memory sequences that stop the story action short will kill a mystery story. Reveal backstory through actions, short memory flashes, and/or short dialogue between the characters.

Make backstory a part of the fast-forward action of your mystery novel.

More Writing Tips:

4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”
What is Story Structure?
6 Ways to Avoid “Information Dumps” in a Mystery Novel
Questions to ask before adding details to your Mystery Novel 


  1. Brilliant post Nancy. Couldn’t agree more. Backstory is such an important element in a novel, that we as writers, forget how to do it correctly. We think we need to tell the reader EVERYTHING all at once, but that does nothing but bore or overwhelm the reader, who then switches off.


    • Good points, Alannah. Backstory is tricky but essential.


  2. More good pointers. thanks. I need all these in one place someday when I start revising my book(s).


  3. Excellent summary, NC. I expect that writing in layers might help. Write out the main story. Then add in back story and foreshadowing clues.

    When you think about it, it’s amazing that any books ever make it to market with all the things that writers might think about and contend with before saying, “It’s done.”


    • Writing in layers is an interesting idea. It seems like a good concrete sequential approach to writing backstory.


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