September 19, 2019

Backstory: Avoid Info Dumping by Making It Essential: Part 4 — Guest: Kris Kennedy

Beautiful mountain in rear-view mirror with text: Must-Read Backstory...Is It Plot-Relevant?

As we talked about the last few weeks in Part Two and Part Three of Kris Kennedy’s backstory series, the false beliefs or guiding principles that grow out of a character’s defining moment from their backstory are key to the emotional heart of our story. Exploring a character’s backstory through their struggle to learn and overcome reveals our story’s theme and piles on emotion.

But how do we make sure our story’s plot plays well with our character’s backstory? How do we make sure the plot will push them to do all that learning and overcoming?

Kris Kennedy is back with a fantastic Part Four of her 5-part series on crafting must-read backstory. Today’s insights dig into how we can use our character’s backstory to brainstorm our plot (or vice versa), creating a compelling story filled with their struggle.

Please welcome Kris Kennedy! *smile*


Crafting Must-Read Backstory:
Part Four

By Kris Kennedy 

We’ve been talking about how to turn backstory into Story fuel.

In Key #1 (“Make It Compelling”), we talked about how to craft compelling backstory to build characterization, ramp up internal stakes, and add tension.

In Key #2 (“Single Defining Moment”), we talked about the importance of crafting a Single Defining Moment for your protagonist, which will tap on the reader emotions and build character motivations.

In Key #3 (“Layer It”), we talked about identifying core beliefs and emotions that flowed from that Single Defining Moment, and adding layers to them. This is a huge help with plotting.

Today, let’s dive into a fourth key to Must-Read Backstory.

Key Four:
Make Plot Events Tap Backstory, Hard

We touched on some of this in the third post on Must-Read Backstory (Layer It), but let’s dig in a bit deeper.

Don’t set your protagonist into a random–if awesome–plot. Weave the two together.

Make this plot be perfectly crafted to deconstruct this character.

Give your protagonist a backstory (and a connected personality trait or two) that’s directly at odds with what they’re going to have to do in the story.

Then push them into it.

Get them dirty.

Make the plot get them dirty.

What Plot Would Push Our Character Deep Out of the Comfort Zone of Their Backstory’s Core Beliefs?

Sure, you might have an awesome plot that would be uncomfortable for anyone—I mean, who wants to have their co-worker turn up dead, discover corruption in their own family, or fight an army of zombies??

But if you make it uncomfortable for your heroine specifically, because of her backstory, your readers will care a whole lot more.

Got a plot that requires confronting authority? Build a backstory where your hero never confronted.

Got a plot that requires building alliances? Craft a character who’s a loner from way back because…reasons.

Use the Plot to Keep Pushing

As the plot progresses, keep engineering events that push your protagonist into situations that are difficult for him/her/them at a deeply personal level.

Ensure the actions required to succeed are in direct conflict with your protagonist’s core beliefs and worst fears, which are derived from their backstory.

Escalate the demands on them as the story progresses—start small and get bigger.

Think of the Single Defining Moment & Build from There

See how the Single Defining Moment gives you the goods to craft a plot that’s intricately intertwined with this character? How it gives you a roadmap for the plot test you need to throw in their path.

How do we create must-read backstory? @RomWriteLab shows us how to make it directly relevant to the plot Click To TweetAnd that second layer gives you the biggest ‘hurt’ of all, at the All Is Lost moment.

This powers up your characters and your plot in multiple ways. But it also just makes them more interesting to watch! With intense emotions underlying the things they do (or try to avoid doing) people tend to act in more dramatic, extreme, and remarkable ways.

That keeps readers reading, because they can’t wait to see what your protagonist is going to do next.

Backstory That Matters Now: When to Reveal?

In general, backstory explanations work best if they show up on the page when they matter to what’s happening right now. Or what’s about to happen in the very next scene.

Basically, intro backstory when the details of it will make the reader more tense, because they now understand how difficult the task will truly be for this character.

A relevant, emotion-driven backstory gives readers insight into how the plot event/requirement is hard for your protagonist specifically. Not Generic Hero, but this hero.

It also adds tension.


Backstory That Matters Now: How Does It Add Tension?

The more your reader is thinking, “Um…they really don’t ABC…and the plot now requires them to ABC??”…

How can adding the right backstory at the right time increase tension? @RomWriteLab shares her tips Click To TweetYou get tension.

The more your reader sees your protagonist is really scared of XYZ/not good at XYZ…and the plot requires XYZ?


The more your reader sees they’ve fought their whole live to have LMNOP…and now the plot requires them to give up LMNOP?



Backstory That Matters Now: Why Does It Add Tension?

Because it makes the reader incredibly uncertain about what the character will do in that moment.

It raises doubt about whether they can handle what’s coming. The reader simply doesn’t know what the character will do when their back is to the wall.

Plot gives you the wall, and the push against it.

Backstory gives you the reason they might fail.

How To Build a Plot from Backstory

How do you craft a plot that taps your protagonist’s unique backstory? How do you intertwine plot and backstory so it’s this story for this character?

Step #1: Create the Character’s “Never” List & Brainstorm Corresponding Plot Events

Ask: What’s one thing your character would:

  • Never think?
  • Never say?
  • Never do?

Now, go set up plot events that force them to think, say, and do all those things.

Pro Tip: You can have multiple “Never Do” lists. Big scale and smaller scale lists.

Step #2: Expose Their Potential for Growth with Small Scale “Never” List

The smaller scale list contains things they end up doing mid-stream in the story, from the Inciting Incident through to the Black Moment.

Can we use our character's backstory to brainstorm a plot? @RomWriteLab shares her insights Click To TweetIt’s like little preparatory stretches, the warm-up before the real game. Smaller ‘shifts’ and turns in their emotions and core beliefs. The middle of the story is where they’re experiencing new things, new emotions, new events, which are testing their core beliefs, old emotions, and their general M.O. for life.

For the most part, these ‘stretches’ pay off during middle parts of the story. The character tries a new think/say/do and… it kinda works.

Yay, Protagonist!

The confidence they get from this drives further actions (and in a romance, a deeper engagement in the romance). Mid-story is usually when the protagonist scores a ‘win’ against the ‘enemy,’ whatever form that takes in your story. (But midpoint can also be a ‘low’ that fuels them to some new action)

Step #3: Use the Big Scale “Never” List for the Black Moment

Then they get to the big Thing They Can/Would Never Do.

:cue ominous Dark Night of the Soul music:

This is that second layer we talked about in the 3rd post. The thing they can’t see or understand or do properly because of their Single Defining Moment.

Or rather, the lessons learned as a result of that moment.

It’s the wall they keep hitting. The core beliefs and frozen emotions they haven’t yet worked out. It’s the reason they can’t figure out or problem-solve effectively. It’s the thing that holds them back, or messes them up, and plunges the story—and them—into the All Is Lost Moment.

Example: How the Single Defining Moment Fuels the Black Moment

In the example we’ve been using in this series, we’ve got a protagonist whose Single Defining Moment was the night his alcoholic father came home and beat his mother, while the seven-year-old protagonist hid in the closet.

Let’s say his top layer frozen emotions is fear, and a core belief of “If you’re vulnerable, you get destroyed,” which leads to a guiding principle of, “I’ll never be weak again.”

Let’s say his second layer emotion is shame, and a belief, “I’m weak and can’t protect the people I love,” which leads to him building a life with all the trappings of power, and a cold, ‘you’re on your own’ loner style approach to relationships.

Well, his All Is Lost moment sure better include him having to protect someone, right??

This is when he’ll have to face the truths from his past, those second layer emotions. He’ll have to come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t protect someone back then, and face the truth that maybe he can now.

But only if he does something different than he ever has before.

And the reader, who now knows this backstory, is going to be very doubtful that he’s got what it takes to do this new thing. i.e. Tension.

That’s your Act III. 

Big Story/Little Story “Never” Lists and Implied “Never” Lists

Sometimes the ‘big story’ Never Do act isn’t something they could have conceived of at the start of the story. They wouldn’t have even considered it. It’s so off the charts and off their radar it wouldn’t have shown up on a “Never Do” list.

In Jaws, Chief Brody’s Never Do list definitely wouldn’t have included facing down an attacking Great White Shark in open waters on a sinking ship with nothing but a rifle and an oxygen tank. But there he was….

That’s what you want.

Plot events are your character’s tests.

As your protagonist goes through them, they change. Transform. By “The End,” they must be a different person than they were in Chapter One in some fundamental way.

The plot is how you get them there. But backstory is where you dig up the muck-covered, jeweled heart of what must change.

Make sure the plot tests them in very specific, very emotional ways, forcing them ever closer to the final showdown with the real enemy: the one in their heart.

That’s Story.

And it leads directly to the last key for must-read backstory, which we’ll get to next time!


Deception by Kris Kennedy book coverKris Kennedy is a USA Today bestselling romance author, story coach, freelance editor, owner of Romance Writing Lab & host of the craft-focused Romance Writers Summit (launching Fall 2019). She’s taught for Romance Writers of America, multiple online writing chapters, Writer University, and Savvy Authors.

Connect with Kris at her website or Twitter, or…


Thank you, Kris! This is fantastic. Just last month, I wrote about how the Climax of our story needs our character to take a “leap of faith” of doing something they couldn’t do before, and this is a great look at how to use their backstory to develop this plot event. *grin*

I also love how Kris points out that our character can have small “nevers” and big “nevers.” Saving the big never for the Black Moment is a perfect way to ensure we’re raising the stakes throughout our story as well.

Kris’s example of how to connect a character’s backstory with the plot uses the backstory as a starting point. We can use our knowledge of the backstory and the Single Defining Moment to brainstorm plot events that will challenge the character.

However, if our story seed “What If” is instead based on the plot events rather than what we know about our protagonist, we could also follow the opposite path, as Kris mentions at the beginning of her post. Think of what the plot requires them to do and craft a backstory that made them never able to do that before. Just as backstory can inspire plot, plot can inspire backstory.

No matter which direction our brainstorming takes, however, we’d want to make sure the backstory directly affects the character’s struggle in the plot. As Kris said, we can do better than just making a generically difficult plot for our character to survive. And if the plot is directly related to the backstory, those ideas turn into must-read backstory. *smile*

Have you ever used a character’s backstory to brainstorm a plot before? How did it work for you? If not, have you made the backstory directly affect the character throughout the plot? Do Kris’s insights give you other ideas for using backstory in your writing? Do you have any questions for Kris?

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P.I. Barrington
P.I. Barrington

Beautiful! Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Every post gets better! And I think that no matter what level writer you are, this is infinitely helpful. No matter how you write, what genre you write, what emotions you try to portray, each of these posts is amazing and opens up your eyes (internal and external) to all the things needed to create a whole, integrated story with realistic characters that readers can and will relate to (and isn’t that what we wanted all along?) As usual, great post; looking forward to the next one!

Deborah Makarios

Small nevers and big nevers – that makes so much more sense than just saying “what would X never do?” Most people would never burn their house down, slaughter children, invade Russia in the winter… Doesn’t mean the story should make ’em do those things. I guess it’s a search for the relevant never, the never that fires this particular story.

Aaaand now I have the song “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything” in my head.
Well, I’ve never plucked a rooster
And I’m not too good at ping pong
And I’ve never thrown my mashed potatoes
Up against the wall
And I’ve never kissed a chipmunk
And I’ve never gotten head lice
And I’ve never been to Boston in the fall!

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop