I have this one idea for a dark fantasy/Lovecraftian horror story in which it primarily focuses on the protagonist adventuring in a time much, much later than when relevant backstory events took place to the point where everything to do with the past is convoluted. Yet instead of having the backstory revealed plainly to the protagonist as the story progresses, I want to present it as a puzzle that the readers themselves have to piece together to form their own interpretations without simply taunting them with obscure, irrelevant details that make little sense.

What would be the best method to pull this kind of storytelling off?

  • What leads you to believe that there are readers out there who are looking for that kind of reading experience?
    – user16226
    Dec 11, 2017 at 17:49
  • A good approach could be having other characters discuss such backstory. Allow them to remember good times, throw accusations and such. The reader should know these characters are unreliable and are only giving their opinions and views in the topic.
    – FFN
    Dec 11, 2017 at 18:13
  • @MarkBaker what leads you to believe there isn't? Dec 12, 2017 at 4:55
  • Because there is nothing in classical story theory to suggest that they do, and because the most basic principle of writing is clarity of communication. The more you make your story obscure to the reader, the more likely the reader is to simply go read something else. People read for experience and the more lucid and vivid that experience is, the better they like it. Obscurity in the telling is not generally what people are looking for.
    – user16226
    Dec 12, 2017 at 12:24
  • 1
    @MarkBaker While I usually think you're spot on, I have to disagree here. While no one likes "bad" communication, plenty of readers enjoy puzzles, otherwise mystery wouldn't be a popular genre. I could cite plenty of other counterexamples, but you get the point. I think there's value in what you're saying, but maybe you're being a little too broad in this prohibition. Dec 12, 2017 at 15:06

2 Answers 2


This looks like a detective story. You give your readers clue after clue, and little by little they build an understanding of what has really happened.

You case is a little different, because, as your said, the backstory happened a long time ago, and protagonist can not affect it in any way. But maybe he is actively working on revealing pieces of the backstory. For example, there is a number of works where protagonist(s) is/are searching for the Grail, and the backstory is how the Grail ended up where protagonists should finally look for it.

In either case, your clues should mark a discovery trail for the reader. Each new backstory clue should be expected with impatience, and be a little surprising. You can mark "red herrings" and plot twists as you like.

  • +1 I agree, my first thought was "historical mystery" too. Who killed JFK? What's the real story behind Atlantis? Where did the Ark of the Covenant wind up? Was it ever really made? Did Hitler really die in the bunker, or did he escape to South America? All the Ancient Alien mysteries: If we exclude Aliens, how did people make those things and what was their real purpose? Yes, I think people are interested in such mysteries, both real and fictional (e.g. Dan Brown puzzles). Each clue leads to new places and other clues, until it all comes together.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 11, 2017 at 19:36

I've come to feel that at least half the questions on this site, as different as they are on the surface, all have the same answer: Fully work out all the details of your backstory, richly imagine it, make sure it makes sense, but then only include in the actual book the pieces that are necessary to the narrative as it unfolds. In this case, however, as I understand it, there are two additional wrinkles. You want enough of the backstory that the reader can gain an apprehension of it, but you don't want the characters to also figure it out.

I would advise caution --it would be easy to deform your story to the point of unreadability in pursuit of a goal like this --I've seen it happen to books. Your best bet, I think, is to make sure that a) the backstory is relevant to the current events, so that it shows up organically, without being shoehorned in and b) that the characters don't put the pieces together because they are interested in other things --maybe they have more pressing concerns, maybe they aren't history buffs, maybe they all know the backstory already and just take it for granted (probably the choice with the best chances of success).

If the characters are pursuing the backstory, if all the hints are in the book, and if the characters still fail to figure it out, that's just going to feel like a cheat. Alternately, you might have one character figure it out, and just not share the answer explicitly with the reader, leaving it as a soluble puzzle. Even better advice, however, might be to do as Tolkien did: Leave the backstory out of the book (except as needed) and just continue to mine it for additional books later.

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