Thursday, September 4, 2014

Backstory with Bite

We have learned how to avoid backstory plot holes and discussed how to layer backstory to create conflict.

This week, we look at other ways to manipulate backstory.

1. It is tempting to cheat by inserting letters, news articles, and pages from a book or diary to impart information. There may be instances where it works, but rarely. These shortcuts are generally boring in nature. Even worse, they are often placed in italics. If you insist on this, keep it short and simple. Pages of italics strain the eyes.

Backstory in the form of letters or journal entries tests a reader's patience. They draw the reader out of real time. A few readers adore them. Most don't. I scan read them. If they are too long, I skip over them. They rarely contain conflict and are a lazy way of delivering information.

If the contents can be summarized quickly through internal dialogue or dialogue, do that instead. We don't need to see a long news article about a body being found. Dick can read the article and comment on it to Sally, offering her the juicy parts. Most of us do this when we read something to someone across the kitchen table or office desk. We don't read the whole article. We react emotionally to the contents. Any encounter that doesn't require screen time can be related through dialogue.

"I can't believe this garbage! Did you read this? It says …"

"Listen to this, the Mayor thinks everyone should hang laundry outside to save on energy consumption. I don't want bird poop on my sheets."

We skip over the blah, blah, blah parts and read the good stuff.

"Referencing statistics on the dangers of cell phones, it says, yada, yada, yada, the police will start enforcing the texting ban on Friday. Better warn our kids."

This type of delivery keeps the reader in real time and in the presence of characters they care about.

2. Short snippets of backstory can be revealed through inner dialogue and thoughts. What a character thinks reveals character. A conversation or situation can bring back pleasant or unhappy memories. This is part of interiority. Dick can think:

Sally thinks she knows everything. Even when we were in kindergarten, she thought she knew everything. No one in this town ever changes.

This reveals that he has a history with the town, he has known Sally since kindergarten, and he isn't too pleased with her or the town. In this example, he keeps the negative opinion to himself. The same information could be related as dialogue.

In the next example, Dick shares the same information and antagonizes Sally in the process.

"Yeah, you thought you knew everything back in kindergarten, too. Nothing ever changes in this town."

3. Summary can propel the story. Jane might drive past her old house, the one she shared with her ex-husband, and think:

I pulled up to the curb and left the engine idling. God, I missed the cottage. I loved the symmetry of it, the gables, and the white picket fence. I loved the rosebushes and the neighborhood tabby cat that sunned itself on the steps. I should have been sitting on the front porch swing, drinking tea, and reading a good book instead of driving past it like a lovesick teenager. I didn't miss Dick. He wasn't worth a single tear. Keeping the cottage was bad enough then he moved in that lanky, air-headed skank. Killing him wouldn't make a difference. It would still belong to her. I'd have to figure out a way to drive them out.

This reveals that Jane used to live in the house and she broke up with Dick for cheating on her. It lists her aesthetic preferences, she likes tea and reading books, and she loved the house more than her ex. It gives us the story goal: get the house back. You could have spent pages telling us about Jane's past and setting up her motivation. Instead, it was summarized in a few short, bittersweet sentences.

4. Backstory can be revealed though dialogue.

Avoid the horrible "As you know, Sally" information dumps. Make sure your characters would utter the words in a real conversation.

"As you know, Sally, our great-grandpa started this tea business in 1893 when he came over from old England. He built the place from the ground up." zzz.

Of course Sally knows, it is her great-grandfather too. Let's slip this in with a little character conflict.

Dick ran a hand over the smooth wooden chest, tracing the crest with the Sinclair name and the year 1793. "I wish grandpa Mac had lived to see this."

Sally didn't look up from her phone."He'd be 200 years old."

"Not the point." Dick lifted the lid, inhaling the sweet smell of peppermint. "He left England with a small tin of tea and a dream and look at us: international distribution, thirty varieties, new hybrids."

"Disgruntled employees, greedy investors, irrational vendors."

"Let me buy you out. You'll never love the place the way I do."

"I'll never love anything the way you do. You're obsessed. You should leave this cave occasionally. Go on date. Get laid."

"Get stuffed."

Sally slipped her phone into her pocket. "Every chance I get. I'm hungry. Let's do lunch before I pass out."

"I'm serious. I want to buy you out."

"I'll think about it on a full stomach."

A character's hot buttons, prejudices, and conceits can rear their ugly heads during heated conversations. Backstory is best revealed through a verbal sparring match, not a lazy trot down memory lane. You add conflict when the characters block what needs to be said, reveal painful secrets, point out a person's flaws, or expose old wounds along the way.

Expert use of backstory elevates you from beginner to master craftsman.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Excellent post. I may use pieces of it in my next writing workshop. Beginning writers love backstory dump. I don't. Most readers don't. This will help some find alternatives. Thanks.

    1. Try giving them.a set of facts, then have them craft those facts using different ways: inferiority, dialogue, summary. Exercises build writer "muscle memory."

  2. Great post, Diana, and the examples were so helpful in understanding. Sometimes writing advice blogs point out what not to do, but don't show what to do. Any time we start a sentence with "As you know..." we are revealing back story the wrong way.

  3. This is an excellent post, Diana. Backstory is often vital to understanding the present, but its presentation can make or break the story from the reader's perspective. I love the alternatives offered--one size does not fit all, and you've covered that well.


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