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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Jet-Fuel Backstory by DiAnn Mills

Jet-Fuel Backstory
By DiAnn Mills

Backstory is your story’s history. Some parts of it will never be visible to the reader. Like jet fuel, it’s the power behind every novel, the motivation propelling every character into action. Backstory reveals the why to unexpected behavior and adds punch to the unpredictable. The result is a believable story with characters who resonate with the readers long after the book is finished.

A jet moves ahead because it's fueled with power.

When developing story that’s fresh and engaging, a writer strives to understand the character’s goals, fears, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. This task is impossible to navigate without knowing where the character has been, which means discovering what happened in the character’s life before chapter one, line one of the story.

The what-ifs of plot are easier to create when the writer understands the extreme challenges of the point of view character, whether that character is the protagonist or antagonist. Backstory takes the writer into that zone.

Consider yourself: You are the total of all life’s happenings since the day you were born. You inherited genes from your parents that set the stage for how you thrive mentally, physically, emotionally, and possibly spiritually. You’ve been seeped in culture, education, and a span of time called life. Nature and nurture combined with experiences, and there you are.

Which way is your story headed?
  Discovering a character’s personality is a similar process. Fortunately for the writer, the items needed from backstory are those that apply to your story, specifically scene by scene. But the writer still has a lot of work to do. Interview questions help, but writers have to know what to ask.

I’m a fan of Donald Maass, and often his teachings challenge me to stretch my imagination so my creativity can take a leap. The following prompt comes from a Maass exercise in Writing the Breakout Novel. The responses give you a solid foundation for your character’s motivation—and a few things you might not have already known.
  1. What happened in your character’s life up to age 12 that affected who she/he is today?
  2. What happened in your character’s life from ages 13 - 20 that affected who she/he is today?
  3. What happened in your character’s life from ages 21 - 30 that affected who she/he is today?
  4. What happened in your character’s life 1 year ago that affected who she/he is today?
  5. 6 months?
  6. 6 weeks?
  7. 24 hours?
  8. 1 hour?
  9. 10 minutes?
Are you ready to dive deeper into backstory? You can develop the character’s personality, vocabulary, career choices, emotions, attraction to the opposite sex, opinions, purpose, social concerns, problems, mental handicaps, and so much more, giving the story more intimacy because the writer has touched the character’s life. The exciting part is the writer is better equipped to predict behavior, no matter how eccentric.

A writer’s greatest joy is when a reader becomes engrossed in story, living the adventure of the character in unforgettable moments. You can do this by discovering the backstory.

Go ahead.

I dare you. 

Add some jet-fuel backstory.

 DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She currently has more than fifty-five books published.
Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers; the 2014 president of the Romance Writers of America’s Faith, Hope, & Love chapter; and a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, and International Thriller Writers. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is also a craftsman mentor for the Jerry B. Jenkins
Christian Writers Guild. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas. Visit her website at and connect with her on Facebook
(, Twitter (@DiAnnMills), Pinterest (, and Goodreads (


  1. This was one of those light bulb moments in my writing career. Now I write a stream of consciousness backstory for each main character. It's where I learn their secrets and fears. And I owe it to two of my ACFW chapter pals, Cindy Woodsmall and Amy Wallace. :)

  2. Backstory is both praised and denigrated. As a writer, I love filling in the blanks. As a reader, I want to know the character deeply. If the writing's good, I don't really care how it's done/accomplished either. Thanks, DiAnn.

  3. I think backstory really adds a lot of depth to the story. My problem is weaving in the backstory throughout the real story. I end up with a prequel rather than an engaging story.

    Amber Schamel

  4. Backstory for me is a necessity. Writing a 5-generation family saga needs me to know what characteristics are passed along from one generation to the next. Great article. Thanks.


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