Show rather than tell the backstory

Among the major errors some novice writers make is waiting to tell readers a story. Those writers begin their tale with lots of background information, such as the main character’s personality, where that character lives, what she does for a job, who are the members of her family, and so on. They believe that readers need to know this information before the story can be told.

Rather than give readers backstory, though, writers ought to launch their plot with the story’s very first line and keep it soaring. The backstory can be weaved into the plot by mentioning and inferring it through dramatic action.

So, rather than write…:

Kathy was the one who held everything and everyone down. Be it a few dollars on their rent, a ride to the grocery store, a kind or a harsh word (whichever the situation called for) – if you meant something to her, she always had your back. She shot straight from the hip at all times, and for that reason, she earned the one thing she cared about most, her respect.

…instead do something like this:

Kathy opened the refrigerator door, wondered where she’d place yet another casserole brought by those paying respect to David. Then she grinned; for the first time in her life, she didn’t have to think about how her family was going to eat. She did have half a mind to tell the fifth neighbor who brought some tuna and noodle concoction what to go do with it, but Latrice was just being kind, so she accepted the warm Corningware dish with a smile. If Latrice made another snide remark about David Jr.’s haircut, though, Kathy knew right where she was going to stick that casserole.

The second passage infers that Kathy is “the one that held everything and everyone down” and that she always has “a kind or a harsh word (whichever the situation called for).” This is all done in the context of Kathy handling the funeral for her husband, who apparently is young, which we learn through her decision to defend “David Jr.’s haircut”.

In short, the second passage shows rather than tells. A character’s backstory invariably in exposition (or “telling”), and that’s poisonous to a story.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.