Four Ways to Handle Backstory

Every story has exposition–details of the character and world that you, as the author, need to pass on to the reader. You’ve spent hours fleshing out the world of your story and learning about your characters, and now you have to find some way of getting this information (or at least the essential part) from your head to the readers’. (This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where you need to tell how the world of the story differs from our world.)

So what’s an author to do?

18e304bf9098fa7e72c5770bb42be988 by lizdegagner

Most writing sources discourage info-dumping, or just giving all the information the reader could possibly use or need. Modern readers want to get on with the story and not spend pages reading about the past. (And if the past is so important as to need pages of text, you should probably start the story in the past.) But many writing guides don’t discuss what else we can do with the backstory.

So here are four options, with the benefits and challenges of each.

  • Backstory through Narrator. This works in both first person and omniscient third person stories, where someone is clearly telling the story. Instead of showing the basics of the backstory–the age, history, demeanor, and world of the story–the narrator tells it to us directly.

Pros: Using a narrator or character to deliver the exposition is quick and uncomplicated, and it certainly gets the job done. And it is something that naturally occurs. Stories like the traditional “once upon a time” start out with backstory, giving us the situation the opens the plot without any fuss or bother.

Cons: This method is subject to the same criticisms of “show, don’t tell,” and even authors who use it will do so sparingly. Tolkien, for example, uses this in The Hobbit to explain what hobbits are like, as a people, but when it comes to Bilbo or Gandalf, he lets the action show us what the characters are like.

  • Backstory through Flashback. This allows a reader to go straight to the moment of the backstory, in the first place. Rather than having to tell us “the main character lost his or her parents to a fire” we can experience the agony and sorrow of it all, firsthand. Whether done in a prologue or a true flashback, it takes the reader back in time to an earlier part of the world or character’s life.

Pros: This is the ultimate method of “show, not tell” where exposition is concerned, as nothing is summarized or retold.

Cons: Because it happened in the past, it can break up the flow of the narration and get confusing, and prologues can often feel like cheating, giving us information you could otherwise deliver in the current timeline by another method.

  • Backstory through Dialogue. This was used a great deal in plays in the 18th century. Two maids would come out on stage and clean, discussing the woes of their masters and mistresses and then disappear so the real main characters could take center stage. Nowadays, you can still find this method used when one character talks to another character about something that is going on in their lives: an upcoming meeting, a rite-of-passage test, or a visit from someone. This is especially useful when something is going to happen that deviates from the normal.

file0001432978570 by taliesin

Pros: Having your characters explain the backstory by talking to another character can be a very natural method that still moves the story forward rather than pausing the plot. Characters can talk while fighting, while working, or while en route to whatever the big event is, and the reader still gets the sense that the story is going somewhere even as they’re learning the necessarily bits of information to understand what is going one.

Cons: Unless you can come up with a viable reason for the characters to have the conversation, it can seem forced, and a lot of necessary information just can’t be included in a conversation between two people who already know the details themselves. They wouldn’t ask “Why are we doing this?” or “Why does this matter,” for example, because they’d already know, so unless you can find a way to bring this information to light, naturally, it can seem as forced as the “feather-duster” version, with maids discussing gossip that they already know.

(Note: Backstory though Unfriendly Dialogue is a great variation on this. It’s subject to the same pros and cons, but it can add motivation and conflict to your exposition.  If a school bully or arch-nemesis comes on the scene, for example, he or she will naturally talk about stuff the main characters won’t want to share, and will probably taunt them with information both already know. It can turn something unnatural into the most believable thing in the world: “Why does this matter” can come out in “You know they’re going to appoint the next __ after this, but don’t worry. It won’t be you. You could never measure up. Ever since ___.” When enemies meet, backstory comes out.)

  • Backstory through Discovery. This is one of my favorite methods for handling exposition. When you have a character who, like the reader, doesn’t know what’s going on–who stumbles on a secret or slips through the wardrobe into the fantasy world–you have a very natural set-up for questions to be asked.

Pros: Characters’ observations, thoughts, confusion, and feelings will roughly mirror the readers’ own, and the backstory gan be given, little by little, from those that know (the other characters) to those that don’t. Plus, this method works regardless of narration style, though I think it’s very well suited for third person limited. An author can cut to scenes between those that know, discussing something the main character doesn’t know, letting a “should we tell him or her about ___” inform the reader, quite smoothly and readily, about something.

Cons: Because this method works so well, it has been used in a great many stories, and thus a writer has to guard against repeating or rehashing other authors. Also, one has to make sure there is a good reason for the main character to be making discoveries instead of knowing all this before. Why did they not discover their special powers before this point? Why has their heritage been hidden, the existence of the other world kept secret, etc., etc.? It has to make sense and not be just a convenient vehicle for exposition.

Using one of these three methods, or a mix of them all, you should be able to get the plot-essential pieces of backstory to your readers, telling them what they know when they need to know it but not bogging them down with too much information.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by lizdegagner and taliesin, Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “Four Ways to Handle Backstory

  1. I’ve always been rather fond of the implied backstory. For example, a character demonstrates a skill, tying knots, or speaking a second language, and maybe offers a quick explanation “I spent six months on a ship.”
    Gradually, over the course of the story, the skills and quick remarks begin to coalesce into a picture.
    Of course there’s often a flashback or conversation to flesh out the rest, but I like the slow build. It almost functions like a subplot mystery.

    Like

    1. That’s another good way of handling it. Thanks for sharing! I think implied backstory works best when it is something a character wouldn’t want to talk about (how he or she got a scar, how their marriage broke up, their friend died, etc.) or when circumstances force them not to tell (i. e., they’re too busy trying to stay alive to share their past). Otherwise, it’d be a natural thing to weave into conversation. But I’m with you; I like a slow build, where characters don’t tell you everything about their lives when you first meet them.

      Liked by 1 person

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