Writers On Writing / How to write effective backstory with Laurel Cohn

“Revealing and concealing backstory for dramatic effect can play a significant role in driving tension and narrative momentum.”

What are the biggest mistakes writers make when tackling backstory?

There are two common issues with backstory. One is that writers haven’t explored their characters deeply enough to know how their characters’ pasts inform their goals and motivations, both of which are critical in creating engaging and compelling stories. The other issue is almost the opposite – too much backstory, particularly in the opening chapters, where the writer pauses the plot to give the reader detailed backstory in the mistaken belief that if the reader doesn’t know all that information they won’t care about the characters, or be able to follow the main plot line.

How does effective backstory elevate a piece of writing?

At one level, effective backstory results in believable characters and three-dimensional settings. At another level, the choices a writer makes about what readers know, and when, directs their emotional response to the characters and the story events. Revealing and concealing backstory for dramatic effect can play a significant role in driving tension and narrative momentum.

Which writers do you think balance backstory perfectly?

The writers who balance backstory best are the ones who understand very clearly what their story is about, who their characters are, the significance of their settings, and how to reveal just enough backstory in context to enhance a reader’s understanding while keeping the story moving at the same time. In the workshop we’ll be looking at how a range of writers across genres do this well, including Morris Gleitzman (children’s), Maria Tumarkin (memoir), Ruth Ozeki (literary fiction), Fiona Bell (YA), Gregory Day (short story), Liane Moriarty (general fiction), and Dominic Smith (historical fiction).


Dr Laurel Cohn is a developmental editor with a PhD in literary and cultural studies, and she’s passionate about communication and the power of stories in our lives. Since the late 1980s she has been helping writers prepare their work for publication. She also works with publishers, businesses and community organisations, and is a popular workshop presenter.

Join Laurel’s workshop, Balancing Backstory, Saturday 4 June 2022, 10am-4pm. Enrol here >>

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