Writers have it tough sometimes. We have unique roles: bring light to a world readers have never experienced. The tricky part? Revealing the story world in an interesting way. This story world often goes hand-in-hand with the protagonist’s backstory—details about who they are and what they’re doing. Yet writers can’t simply just stop the story to explain those details. Character backstory must be woven in naturally.
Many methods exist for presenting character backstory. Some should be avoided at all costs. Some can be used sparingly. Here’s a few to look at:
1. Avoid Info Dumps to Tell the Backstory.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier to simply tell the readers what they need to know in the first few chapters? Unfortunately, doing so interrupts pacing. It takes away from the forward action of plot. Worse still, it risks alienating readers. Reveal backstory in too heavy-handed a manner and you’ll be accused of “info dumping”.
Info dumps are relatively easy to spot. Generally, they break away from the narrative to give paragraphs (or pages, yikes!) of details about a character’s history or why they are where they are. While these may seem to be important pieces of information to the writer, most of the time, readers don’t need most of it. Avoid info dumps completely.
2. Use Flashbacks Sparingly.
Well, if you can’t give them paragraphs about the backstory, how about just showing them what happened? Can you do this? Sure. Should you do this? Maybe.
Some stories use flashback effectively. But, once again, remember that flashbacks are interruptions to the forward motion of the narrative. Writers should always be aiming to drive the narrative forward. However, diving into the past with a flashback can sometimes give insight into important events. But it should be used sparingly.
Often, the best flashbacks are short, to the point, and happen within the narrative. Better still, they can be presented as brief memories that the character has an emotional reaction to. Here’s more on how and when to effectively use flashbacks in your narrative: Flashbacks – Should You Use Them?
3. Never Use “As You Know, Bobs.”
Even if you don’t know “as you know, Bob” by that name, you’ve probably seen it before. For example: two characters are talking about a fence they are trying to tear down by sunset. Okay—the reader’s interest is piqued. But why do they have to tear down the fence?
Then one character turns to the other and says, “As you know, Bob, this fence can’t be across this property because the government asked us to remove it or pay a huge fine. We’d better hurry up and get it down soon!”
Maybe an extreme example but the point is, this clichéd form of presenting information is so terrible it should be avoided at all costs. Never, ever force a character to “drop in useful” information that they wouldn’t naturally say to the other character or that the other character already knows. It smacks of author intrusion.
4. Use Characters and Dialogue to Deliver Backstory.
There’s a reason I bolded the line about what a character already knows in the paragraph above. Why? Because a smart technique for introducing backstory is to take advantage of what character’s don’t know. So, for example, if a protagonist hates fire, rather than go into a flashback or info dump about how their mom died in a house fire, try this:
Have the protagonist flinch at fire. Have another character (who doesn’t know about mom) notice. This second character can then say, “You okay?” And, after some nudging, the protagonist can reveal either then—or eventually—in dialogue how their mom died.
Most importantly, remember that weaving backstory throughout the narrative is a slow, patient process. The questions that need answering through backstory or exposition are frequently questions readers are willing to wait to be answered. Rush the answers and they may feel hammered with information that feels forced. Take the time to slowly peel back the layers of your story world. Weave important information in, one short sentence at a time, and readers won’t even notice how well you’ve planted that information.