Backstory and Foreshadowing: are you showing or telling?

Backstory is crucial to building a relationship between the reader and the material. This allows the reader feel like they know the character like a friend: the anecdotes, stories, likes and disappointments the characters have gone through as though the reader has been privy to that information like a confidant. It seems easy enough, but there are a number of questions to ask yourself about your characters and plot planning:

1) What is the relationship between your major and minor characters? If they aren’t family, how did they meet? Is it authentic?
2) If it’s romance: did you provide enough (relevant and interesting) information about the main character’s previous (successful or unsuccessful) relationships? If it’s women’s fiction: what are the issues that the character has been dealing with that they bring with them to the present? If it’s mystery: what skills does the protagonist have to solve it and why?
3) Are you using backstory to foreshadow or is it building a bond between reader and text (as it should)?
4) Am I showing or telling the backstory?

But the ultimate question is, how do I weave backstory into my manuscript?

The most difficult part is preventing it from being ‘tacked on’ in a place that is too convenient. The key is to have provided enough backstory in the text (but not too early in the manuscript) before the reader needs to know it, and without the reader having known at the time that it was foreshadowing the events of the plot. Smooth application of relevant character history needs to constantly be worked at so that it doesn’t stand out to the reader and thus, lose the trust of the reader.


  • Tread carefully when digressing for backstory, because coarse transitioning between the present and backstory is a common editing negligence that takes the reader away from the scene at hand.
  • Achieve the balance between too much backstory up front, not enough backstory, and backstory that does not have proper placement in the manuscript which can lead to obvious foreshadowing.
  • Build a relationship between the reader and the text through backstory that doesn’t pander to the needs of the plot, but provides a rich characterization.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

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