Posted by: nancycurteman | January 9, 2011

10 Tips For Writing Backstory in a Mystery Novel

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In mystery novels, backstory is essential to the story plot. The life experiences of characters are what formed their values, attitudes and beliefs which in turn explain the origins of the motives and behaviors when faced with the conflict inherent in a mystery novel. Here are ten things every mystery writer should know about backstory.

1. It’s essential to determine how much backstory is necessary for the story. Do not over explain past events. Choose only those events needed to explain a character’s emotions and actions.

2. It’s absolutely critical to decide where and how to insert background information into  a fast moving mystery novel without stalling the story.

3. Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know as much backstory as the writer does so keep backstory to a minimum.

4. You must make the past (backstory) important to the reader by making it the vehicle that ties together the mysterious threads of the current action.

5. Weave the backstory into the plot in small dribbles revealing more bits of information as the story progresses. This keeps the reader wanting more.

6. Deliver backstory in a scene where it fits naturally into the story. Tie the information to some type of action that’s happening.

7. Try not to present backstory in the first chapter. You need to open your novel with action that propels the story forward. By its very nature, backstory is not action and it does not move the story forward.

8. Backstory should provide information that engages your readers’ imagination and forces h/er to ask more questions.

9. Flashback  is a useful vehicle for presenting backstory but something in the scene must trigger it.

10. Keep backstory short and to the point. Never wax poetically in the past while the story halts and the reader dozes off.

Other writing tips:

9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel
4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”

How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel?
How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story?
How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel
Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel
What is Literary Style?
What is Theme in Literature?
7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth
7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels
Developing Characters is No Mystery
Author’s Voice: How to find it?
What is Story Structure?

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Responses

  1. A very good list, Nancy. You really DO need to put these all together in an eBook.

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    • After our South Bay Publishing workshop you might guide me in the process of creating an e-book.

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  2. […] In mystery novels, backstory is essential to the story plot. The life experiences of characters are what formed their values, attitudes and beliefs which in turn explain the origins of the motives and behaviors when faced with the conflict inherent in a mystery novel. Here are ten things every mystery writer should know about backstory. 1. It’s essential to determine how much backstory is necessary for the story. Do not over explain past events. … Read More […]

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  3. Thank you for very good advice. Backstory. I have it in my ms and plan to question myself on any backstory as to its necessity and its placement. Blessings to you, Nancy…

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    • I think backstory, though essential, is difficult to write without overdoing it.

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  4. Thanks, NC

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  5. Great Stuff!

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    • Hey Duke,
      Nice to meet you. I checked out your site. I look forward to learning a lot from your philosophical and educational posts.

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  6. Great post Nancy. As a writer I am always trying to learn new techniques about backstory and how to weave it into my story, and also how to cut it back. I always feel I need to write a paragraph, when usually a well contructed sentence can tell the reader a lot of the character.
    From a mystery standpoint you can also use backstory (or a piece of information) to help lead the reader astray and focus their suspicions on an innocent person.
    Thanks for posting,
    Emily

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    • Hi Emily, Great point about backstory helping lead the reader and causing him to focus suspicions on an innocent person.
      I visit your site regularly and enjoy the interesting perspectives of your authors.

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  7. Its just me being me. There are many that I really like and would like to put them in a format that will be shared with others.

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    • Hello Duke,
      I am planning to gather all my posts on writing tips and place them in an e-book. I am working with my mentor, Richard Scott, http://UphillWriting.org. I’m very excited about this project and hope to have it completed soon.
      Best Regards,
      Nancy Curteman

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  8. Dear Nancy, can I begin a murder/mystery with a current event that then spurs my protagonist to take a trip in which the murder/mystery occurs?
    My thinking is that it sets the scene for who she is and why she’s taking the trip – and then murders unfold as the trip evolves, so its all a natural chronological story progression.
    However, is this considered a weak way to begin a murder/mystery?
    Your help is very greatly appreciated
    Regards
    Lisa

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    • Hi Lisa, Beginning your novel with a current event that spurs your protagonist to take a trip in which the murder occurs is a great idea. Traditionally a murder mystery needs a murder pretty early in the story. However, there are some where the suspense is so strong that the murder takes place several chapters into the book. I guess the question to ask is how many pages before the murder occurs? Can you write enough conflict leading up to the murder to keep your reader turning the pages? One good way to do this is to let the reader know that the victim is in serious danger long before the victim knows, then provide some build up and near misses. I hope this helps.

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      • Dear Nancy, yes, this really helps – thank you very much indeed!
        Lisa

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  9. […] Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel? How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story? […]

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  10. […] Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel? How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story? Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel What is Literary Style? What is Theme in Literature? […]

    Like

  11. […] Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels How Subplots Enrich Your Mystery Novel Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know  […]

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  12. […] Backstory: 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.”
 […]

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