The Two-Edged Sword of Backstory in Dialog

This week editor Christy Distler tackles Fatal Flaw #4—Too Much Backstory. In this month’s posts, we’ve been looking at the pitfalls of dumping backstory into our scenes and showing ways writers might creatively introduce important information pertaining to a character’s past or necessary to understand the world of the story.

In fiction, backstory is often given a bad name. Writers are barraged with all sorts of advice: Don’t start the story with backstory. Don’t info-dump your readers with backstory. Add backstory only sporadically through the story. The list could go on and on.

But the bottom line is, backstory is important. More than important, really—it’s essential to the story. Backstory builds realistic, multilayered characters. Without backstory, characters are difficult to connect with, for both the reader and the writer. The reader will be bored by their one-dimensionalness, and the writer will struggle to pen natural, apposite actions and reactions to the happenings in their characters’ lives.

And this is where some writers get confused. Backstory is integral . . . but its use is discouraged?

It’s All in the Presentation

Not entirely. Like many things in life, backstory is all about how it’s presented. On the last two Wednesdays, we talked about specific ways to integrate backstory so it enhances instead of detracts from the story. Today we’re going to discuss some aspects of how to use (and how not to use) dialog to incorporate backstory.

So let’s get started with our excerpts.

BEFORE:

“There has to be a better option than this.” I dropped down onto the bench outside Covington Hall’s administration building and waited for Mother and Daddy to face me. “I don’t know why I have to change schools. What happened wasn’t my fault. I was just there.”

Mother folded her arms across her chest. “Covington Hall will be a good change of scenery for you—and a change of peers.”

I looked to Daddy. “But—”

“Cassandra. Need I remind you of what happened? You rode along with Emily Anderson after she took her father’s Mercedes and went joyriding. Emily had no experience driving and crashed the car into our town Welcome sign.” She sighed. “Yes, perhaps it wasn’t your idea, but you were involved, and because Emily’s father is one of our town’s lawyers, everyone believed him when he insisted it had been your idea. The whole town blamed you.”

“But I hardly even knew Emily. I didn’t know she didn’t have a license. It was about to rain, and I just wanted a ride home.”

Daddy sat next to me and shifted to meet my gaze. “We know that, Cassie. We’re not blaming you for what happened. But we do believe that you’ll do well here. As you know, you’re a smart girl with a 160 IQ. You could read before you were two, you were able to add and subtract at age three, and you’d mastered multiplication by the time you were five. At age ten, you could play six different instruments, and you were writing high-school-level essays. Your old school was a good school, but Covington will be even better for you. You’ll meet others like yourself here.”

I dropped my head back and stared at the cloudless blue sky. “Great. So at Covington I’ll be surrounded by geniuses whose extraordinary intelligence sometimes encompasses so much of their brain that there isn’t much room left for common sense?”

Hmm. Now there was a thought. Attending Covington might turn out to be just as wild a ride as my escapade with Emily Anderson.

AFTER:

“There has to be a better option than this.” I dropped down onto the bench outside Covington Hall’s administration building and waited for Mother and Daddy to face me. “I don’t know why I have to change schools. What happened wasn’t my fault. I was just there.”

Mother folded her arms across her chest. “Covington Hall will be a good change of scenery for you—and a change of peers.”

I looked to Daddy. “But—”

“Covington Hall is a highly respected school,” Mother said. “Here you’ll be able to put what happened behind you and concentrate on the future. It’ll be a second chance for you, which you desperately need.”

Daddy sat next to me and shifted to meet my gaze. “We know you’re hesitant about switching schools, but we’ve discussed this. Covington Hall is your best option to—”

“It’s more than your best option,” Mother added, “It’s your only option.”

“Try to see this as a blessing in disguise.” Daddy placed his hand on my arm. “Covington Hall is tailored to meet the needs of young people like you. You’ll thrive here.”

I dropped my head back and stared at the cloudless blue sky. “Great. So I’ll be surrounded by geniuses whose extraordinary intelligence sometimes encompasses so much of their brain that there isn’t much room left for common sense?”

Hmm. Now there was a thought. Attending Covington might turn out to be just as wild a ride as my escapade with Emily Anderson.

So what did you notice about the two excerpts? Two things stand out to me. The Before shows how backstory can detract from dialog, while the After shows how backstory can enhance backstory. Let’s look at the Before passage:

  • First we have Mother giving Cassie the blow-by-blow of what she did wrong. But Cassie’s a teenager (not a small child), and she doesn’t need her mother to explain it. She knows what she did, so obviously her mother’s discourse isn’t in the scene for her benefit. It’s been written solely to give the reader backstory about what’s happened.
  • Then we have Daddy providing Cassie with a long list of her personal achievements, starting with the dreaded “As you know . . .” In this example, her dad even admits that he’s telling her what she already knows. Why? Because he’s not really talking to her; he’s informing the reader.

While dialog is an excellent way to incorporate backstory, it needs to be in the right context. We never want to dump a ton of information that would be better received if it’s presented so it sounds natural and doesn’t seem forced. Now look at the After passage:

  • Cassie’s mother doesn’t give the full story of what happens, but their dialog makes it clear that Cassie’s done something that’s gotten her into big trouble. This excerpt sounds much more natural, and the reader’s interest will be piqued by getting only a tidbit of information. So what did Cassie do? And how do they find out? They’ll keep reading (and you, as the writer, will have the ability to convey what happened more cogently).
  • Cassie’s dad doesn’t highlight each of her achievements; instead, he makes it obvious that she’s different from most people her age—which she then explains with her next sentence. At this point, it’s not necessary for the reader to know Cassie’s timeline of accomplishments, and adding them here doesn’t add to the scene. If anything, it takes away from it because it sounds forced and removes some suspense.

Are these accomplishments important? Absolutely, especially for the writer who needs to know the character inside and out. And Cassie’s achievements may very well come to light later, but having her father blatantly remind her of them is a tedious way to do it.

The bottom line is, backstory is incredibly important. But in dialog, it can be a two-edged sword: there are good ways to convey it and bad ways to convey it. Dialog can be an excellent means of showing “the story before the story,” but it can also deluge the reader with information that would be best introduced sporadically or in another way.

Your turn:

Have you ever used dialog to info-dump—or have you used the dreaded “As you know . . .”? Many new writers do. How have you overcome these fatal flaws of introducing backstory?

15 Responses to “The Two-Edged Sword of Backstory in Dialog”

  1. Sheryl Dunn April 15, 2015 at 6:14 am #

    I think you wrote this post for me!

    The second chapter of my WIP is actually a sequel, where the main character reacts to what happened in the first chapter in a conversation with her brother, i.e., I’m using dialog for the sequel rather than interior monologue or narrative. But I plan on introducing some backstory about the brother in that chapter.

    I think I’ve solved the most common problem with backstory because I feed it in by creating triggers for it in the main story, and then I keep it brief. What I haven’t yet mastered is the idea of hinting about it, and thereby creating even more reasons for the reader to turn the pages.

    A very timely post. Thank you.

    • Christy Distler April 15, 2015 at 9:14 am #

      Thank you, Sheryl!

      I’m glad it was helpful for you. Dialogue can be a great way to add in some backstory, as can gradual adding of it. Sounds like you’ve come up with some good workarounds.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Sara L. April 15, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    Great article, Christy. All of the Fatal Flaw articles have been fantastic so far, actually. Been printing them out as pointers for revising / editing my novel.

    Question for you: How would you recommend handling historical backstory (as opposed to character backstory) in dialogue without info-dumping? It’s something that speculative and historical fiction writers run into because of their genre; and while we have to be careful with how much of that information we share, sometimes it’s hard to avoid. Thanks!

    • Christy Distler April 18, 2015 at 11:50 am #

      Thank you, Sara!

      You ask an excellent question. I actually had to address this in my own writing a few weeks back (my WIP is historical). In my case, using dialogue worked well since the historical backstory was fairly recent (for the characters) and one character was unaware of what had happened. The characters were discussing the happening, which totally worked in the storyline, and at the same time it gave me the opportunity to have the character also make the reader aware of the happening without it seeming like an info dump.

      Now it won’t always be that simple. If all characters are aware of what happened, having them explain it to each other is going to seem awkward and forced. So if you’re going to use dialogue for historical backstory, it definitely helps to have one character who’s not aware of the backstory and questioning about it. As well, I’d recommend having a lot of back and forth between the characters when they’re discussing it. That way one character isn’t giving a long, multiple-paragraph explanation while the other character(s) just listen. That would stand out as an info dump too.

      Another option with historical backstory would be to put it in the description where it’s (initially) needed when you’re writing the first draft. Highlight it with the intention that you’ll find places to intersperse parts of it in other areas of the book. Chances are as you continue writing and then perform your first edit after the book is finished, you’ll find areas where small amounts of the backstory can be added so the big chunk of backstory is no longer necessary.

      Hope this helps, and thanks for joining the discussion!

  3. Evolet Yvaine April 15, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    I can honestly say that when I was writing YA, I never did the “backstory in dialog” thing. It was always in the form of narrative. However, I have been guilty of starting a story with backstory. But I did it in the form of a Prologue and then Chapter One picked up with the character’s “new” life.

  4. Robin Patchen April 15, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

    Very well said, Christy. Your second example is excellent, because it reinforces the fact that the reader doesn’t need to know everything up front. Readers love mystery, so the more unanswered questions, especially in the beginning, the better. Great thoughts.

  5. Christine Goodnough April 15, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    I enjoyed your examples above and agree with you. Feed backstory into the book in small bits at a time. As you say, that piques interest. What did she do back then?

    I’ve read a few books where the writer does back-story as a series of flashbacks, some of these several pages, maybe almost a chapter in themselves. I tend to skip over these and keep on reading because I find these breaks disruptive. I don’t like hopping back and forth in time, staying “back there” for days on end.

    • Christy Distler April 16, 2015 at 5:51 am #

      I agree. I’ve always struggled to keep up with stories that include backstory in flashbacks as well. If the flashbacks are relatively short, I usually don’t mind it too much, but when the flashback makes me forget what’s going in the original scene, it’s a real jolt to come back to it.

      Thanks for stopping by, Christine!

  6. Catie April 16, 2015 at 3:51 am #

    It’s a balancing act, as always with writing. I’ve just finished a scene where one character reveals to the other that he’s some sort of law enforcer. The readers are not familiar with the term used and have no idea what it means. I could’ve just had the other character say “Sh*t, why didn’t you tell me you’re a law enforcer?” but that would come out too unnatural. Instead, the character becomes all defensive and hurries to state that none of his actions (during the story) were illegal. The whole conversation is basically filled with hints that might suggest at what’s exactly considered illegal and what might be the punishment. The problem is that I never know if the hints are clear. Since I’m the one writing it, I have the “curse” of already knowing everything that’s going on, so I can’t really tell if I’m providing enough information to the reader to figure it out. And then there’s the fact that some readers are better with hints than others. So it’s always a fine balancing act between giving hints that are downright confusing, giving just the right amount of hints (that still won’t be the right amount for some readers) and beating the reader over the head with hints.

    • Christy Distler April 16, 2015 at 6:05 am #

      Thanks for sharing, Catie.

      I know exactly what you mean, not knowing if readers will understand certain aspects or not. As writers, we always understand what we write, but that’s not always the case with our story’s readers. That’s why I LOVE critique partners and highly recommend them. Receiving feedback from a critique partner (or a critique group—even better since it’s multiple people) gives you great insight into where wording or some aspect of the story won’t be clear to readers. Do you currently have a crit partner you work with?

      • Catie April 16, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

        The story is definitely going on Scribophile for a critiquing session or two when it’s finished, if not sooner (Scribophile is actually where I’ve noticed that not all readers get all hints. I was a bit naive in assuming that something that was dead obvious to me in other people’s work is going to be equally obvious to others. Some of their critiques proved me wrong), but unfortunately I don’t have a crit partner yet, unless you count my sister, who’s more of a beta reader and has no problem telling me straight up that something sucks. May I use this opportunity to ask if anyone here is looking for a partner as well? I mostly write fantasy.

  7. Jim Steinberg April 16, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    Christie,

    I truly benefited from the way you presented an example of backstory interference with dialogue side by side with one of impressive restraint. And your summary of the differences was equally helpful to one who can sometimes let backstory interfere with the forward motion and tension of a dialogue. Thank you for that.

    I would love your thoughts about presenting longer moments of backstory when done during a character’s private reflections. Though I find that this, too, must be done with restraint, it often helps me show the character’s attitude about events that have come before. It seems a very intimate way to help readers get to know a bit more about the story behind the story. Many authors I enjoy do this without interference with the story’s arc through real time. I like trying my hand at it.

    I hope you have a moment to share your thoughts about this.

    Thank you for such a clear, concise, helpful presentation.

    • Christy Distler April 17, 2015 at 10:33 am #

      I’m glad the post was helpful for you, Jim!

      With regard to presenting longer moments of backstory in a character’s private reflections, I think it really comes down to how it’s done. You’ve pointed out that many authors you enjoy do this without interference, and for me the “without interference” aspect is paramount. If it’s not done well, it’ll seem like an info dump and detract from the story.

      Generally, it’s not something I recommend writers do, but I also understand that I don’t get to have the final say. 🙂 I can advise, but it’s ultimately the author who gets to decide. If you are going to give it a try, I would recommend keeping the private reflections fairly brief and the paragraphs short (long paragraphs, especially consecutive ones, tend to be skimmed or skipped). See how it turns out—and see what your critique partners/beta readers/editor think.

      If you get positive feedback, great. If not, try interspersing the information from the reflection into other areas of the book.

      Hope this helps!

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