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Early Hints of Backstory

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Stories open in any number of ways, but ultimately, all point toward the current circumstances of a character and his desire to work through some sort of initial, story-relevant task. As your reader peruses your opening, she will want assurance that this story will be worth her time. You can suggest that import by stitching opening action to context.

Even while pushing ever forward, backstory can provide that context.

In the way a dash of salt can either bring forward the full flavor of a dish or ruin it, you’ll need to use a light touch. Right up front is rarely the time to break away for an extended backstory scene:

The wood hissed and spat as heat built within the campfire. In the distance, loons cried out their haunting calls. A pack of coyotes yipped.

Uncle Bob rubbed his hands and then raised them to the fire, as if these motions were needed to conjure his tale. We all leaned forward so we wouldn’t miss a word.

But before I tell you what he said, you have to know a few things about Uncle Bob. Born in Syracuse, New York, he was quite the punster…

Kind of breaks the spell, right?

So how can we weave in the kind of context that will extend our story’s frame and strengthen its import, right from the start, without breaking the spell? Here are a few nuts-and-bolts examples.


Use continuity words

A word that suggests continuity or repetition is a subtle yet effective way to suggest there’s a larger story at play than the specific action you are about to read. Once the writer has hinted at a pattern, our own history with story kicks in: we know that this is a pattern about to be disrupted. Look how casually these simple yet impactful words are dropped into these openings (emphases mine):

From This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolf:

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.

From Waiting by Ha Jin:

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.

From The Bigamist’s Daughter by Alice McDermott:

She is almost beginning to believe him.

From Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier:

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.

Prolific short story writer Alice Munro is a fan of this technique. She uses it to great advantage in these openings:

From “Walker Brothers Cowboy”:

After supper my father says, “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?”

From “Dance of the Happy Shades”:

Miss Marsalles is having another party. (Out of musical integrity, or her heart’s bold yearning for festivity, she never calls it a recital.)

From “Material”:

I don’t keep up with Hugo’s writing.


Description as backstory

Literature gives us all the tools we need to enter a moment fully, evoking both a character’s past as well as his present. This can be accomplished right on page one if you set aside attention to his three-day scruff and her red, flowing locks to make room for description that can bring your character’s inner world to life.

Here are two very different examples of how conveying what a character fears or values can pull us into a story. There isn’t much action yet in either case—we will learn that Novalee is in a car, and that Jimmy is marching—but the context in each is absolutely delicious.

From Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight—and superstitious about sevens—shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.

For most people, sevens were lucky. But not for her. She’d had a bad history with them, starting with her seventh birthday, the day Momma Nell ran away with a baseball umpire named Fred. Then, when Novalee was in the seventh grade, her only friend, Rhonda Talley, stole an ice cream truck for her boyfriend and got sent to the Tennessee State School for Girls in Tullahoma.

By then, Novalee knew there was something screwy about sevens, so she tried to stay clear of them. But sometimes, she thought, you just can’t see a thing coming at you.

And that’s how she got stabbed. She just didn’t see it coming.

But wait—aren’t you dying to know what color her hair is??? 

Yeah, me neither.

Telling us what’s in your character’s pockets is a sneaky way to add backstory context. If the object is important enough to mention, it will no doubt reveal something of both your character’s past and the current state of his heart.

From The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl names Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure…

A page later, the tools of war that were also carried strap cold reality to Lieutenant Cross’s tender hope. The story is structured almost entirely this way as it explores the physical and psychological weight of war.

See how sneaky that is? O’Brien has included context through Jimmy’s backstory with Martha while showing the current imaginings of his character and we never sensed that we left the forward drive of his opening.

Would dropping a continuity word into your opening help your WIP? Do these examples work for you? If you feel like writing, tell us what your character would carry in his/her pockets, and show how this might create backstory context without pulling the reader from the story you are opening.

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.