Weaving It In: Backstory in Fiction

This week editor Rachel Starr Thomson tackles Fatal Flaw #4—Too Much Backstory. In this month’s posts, we’re 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. Backstory dumping is one of the most common and egregious flaws of fiction writing, so be sure to pay close attention to all this month’s posts!

Backstory creates an interesting problem for writers. It’s an absolute necessity in good fiction—a good thing. Just as you and I have a backstory of our own, so do our characters, and it’s often from that backstory that key plot points—or the whole plot—arise. Backstory lends richness and depth to our stories and the people who populate them.

Given all that, why do I say backstory creates a problem?

Backstory can be problematic because it’s not always easy to balance. You’ve likely heard the term “info dumping.” This is when a writer comes along and just dumps a pile of information on the reader, usually interrupting the story and derailing any real connection to the characters at the same time.

Really good writing creates a spell. It immerses the reader in another world. The trick is this: We must write backstory, but we must write it in such a way that it does not feel artificial, forced, or so out of balance with the rest of the story that it breaks that spell.

Avoiding Intrusion

This month, our editors will explore ways to relate backstory through dialog, action, and internal monologue so that it stays balanced—a seamless part of the story rather than an interruption to it. Backstory is a nuanced topic, and I believe we’re going to have some great discussion around it.

Ultimately, though, the key is to weave backstory in with the other elements so that it feels natural. It should always be an underlying part of a scene, not a break away from it.

Just as an individual has a history, so your characters will often have history together, and it will sometimes have a major influence on the plot. Therefore, especially toward the beginning of a novel, you might find yourself needing to convey backstory when two characters come together.

The following passages are two versions of a scene from my novel Abaddon’s Eve, when the shepherd boy Alack catches sight of Rechab, a childhood friend he has not seen in several months.

Keep in mind, as you read the passages below, that a lot of character backstory can be implied. Not everything has to be explained or stated outright.

BEFORE

He had not known she was back. He went to her quickly.

Alack and Rechab had been friends since childhood. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and he the son of a shepherd, but they had met one day in the town market when they were about five years old and interacted in their childish way. She remembered him after that, and when they would encounter each other at the town well or other locales, they would play. When they got older, they would talk. They became best friends over time, and in Alack’s heart this friendship had turned to love. He had been in love with her for years now. He had not spoken about it to her, although he thought she knew how he felt. The problem was that with the economic difference between them, there was little hope they could ever act on their love.

“Rechab,” he said.

She turned. “Alack!”

He thought she was beautiful. He had thought so ever since he turned about twelve years old and stopped thinking girls were icky.

“When did you return?” he asked. “As you know, you have been gone since late spring. Your father took you across the desert on his merchant journey like he always does. You know that I miss when you’re gone—I always do.”

“We only just returned . . . the journey has been long.”

“But you are back now,” he said. “Back for the autumn. That means we can spend time together like we’ve done since we were children.”

Her face fell. “Alack, things are different now . . .”

Rechab too knew that they did not have much hope for a future. As she grew older—and more beautiful—her father had plans to cash in on her value by selling her off for a good dowry for some wealthy man. This had been going on for some time now. She always tried to avoid catching anyone’s notice, but she had to go out with her father’s caravans for long periods of time, and more and more often. She rarely had time to stay in the Holy City and see Alack anymore. It was only going to get worse as time went on.

She sighed. “You know I would stay if I could, Alack.”

In a passage like this, both dialog and narrative strike artificial notes. We get the sense that someone is intruding into the story—someone who nudges us with a pointy elbow and puts words in mouths that would never actually speak them.

More effective writing will use other elements of the scene to fill in details like how Alack feels about Rechab, the threat to their relationship, and their history together. These elements include description, specific actions, thoughts and feelings, and yes, dialog (but not the kind that says “As you know, you have been away for months”).

Working together, these elements make the backstory part of the scene—something that belongs to it, not something brought in from the outside.

AFTER

He had not known she was back, and his heart leaped at the sight of her. He pressed through the crowd, edging and elbowing his way to the well and her side.

“Rechab,” he said, his voice catching.

She turned, light leaping up in her soft brown eyes. “Alack!”

He drank in the sight of her. Small and feminine; clothed in homespun; her dark hair tied back except for a few curls that had fought loose and hung around her face and neck. Rechab was startlingly beautiful by any standard, but it was her eyes that drew him most. Eyes that spoke of laughter and secrets and childhood, and at the same time of mystery and growing up—of love.

“When did you return?” he asked.

“Only just now . . . the journey has been long.”

“But you are back now,” he said. “Back for the autumn.”

Her face fell. “Alack, things are different now . . .”

“You cannot be going out again so soon!”

“My father says trade is good. The nomads brought him riches; he wants to take them to the Holy City in just a few days.”

“But . . . you do not have to go with him . . .”

She sighed. “You know I would stay if I could, Alack.”

He swallowed hard. He knew the words she was not saying. That if he were less a boy and more a man, if he could put down the bride price, she would stay. Then they would not just be children playing at love; they would be betrothed, with a future.

A future that would never come.

The Past in the Present

As you can see, the second passage is shorter and relies far more heavily on implication than the first one did. It sacrifices certain details about the past—when they met, what exactly Rechab’s father’s plans are—in favor of weaving the past into the present. It shows us actions and reactions that demonstrate Alack’s feelings about Rechab and the way she is pulling away from him.

Notice that the After passage

  • never has one character informing another of something they both know except in a natural, confrontational context.
  • implies tension and history rather than stating it outright.
  • uses description and action to show attraction rather than telling us that “Alack had been in love with Rechab for years.”
  • uses one character’s thoughts to unfold years of angst and regret rather than just saying “Alack had been trying to fix this for years.”

Backstory is absolutely necessary for any rich, meaningful story. But it needs to behave as a seamless part of the story, not as something parachuting in from outside. You can avoid that sense of outsider artificiality by weaving the past into the present, making the backstory something that is accessible, meaningful, and pivotal to the scene at hand.

Your turn:

Have you struggled to find natural ways to weave backstory into your scenes? What elements have you found most effective in making backstory a seamless part of the story—description, action, dialog? In your WIP, are there details you can sacrifice in favor of implication? Have you ever written an “As you know, Bob” type of conversation? Has this post given you any insight into how you can fix it if you have?

23 Responses to “Weaving It In: Backstory in Fiction”

  1. Sheryl Dunn April 1, 2015 at 7:01 am #

    I tend to use triggers for backstory bits, but I’m still challenged when it comes to implying rather than telling, i.e., whenever I try to imply, my ‘implications’ tend to confuse. Grrr!

    I create my own exercises for this. I’ll write a flash or a short story with the specific goal of implying. I’m getting better, but I’m not there yet.

    Thanks for this reminder.

    • Rachel Starr Thomson April 2, 2015 at 6:09 am #

      Sheryl, I love the idea of doing exercises. That will pay off! It’s an art form–I had the same problem with implication for a long time, and sometimes still do. I find it helpful to look at how successful writers do it–I’m often surprised by how much outright explanation there is at times, but done artfully and well.

  2. Ed Markel April 1, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    Thank you for this, Rachel. Your before and after examples really show the difference between doing it right and doing it the way I do it. This is one of my fatal flaws and I am trying to learn to not dump all of my character’s back story in the first chapter.

    • Rachel Starr Thomson April 2, 2015 at 6:11 am #

      Thanks, Ed! Keep at it; you’ll get it :). This is a REALLY common struggle for writers. The good thing is that once you’ve mastered it, it becomes second nature.

  3. Curtis Manges April 1, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    Rachel,

    My novel started out with a huge info-dump, and rereading it, I realized how awful it was. I swore I wouldn’t do that again.

    In the subsequent rewrite, my mistake was that I still proceeded to pile on all the backstory, but this time I constructed entire scenes to seamlessly introduce it all. The preliminary Explanation for Everything was pretty decent writing–several commenters liked it a lot–it just wasn’t going anywhere. I generated about a novel’s worth before my MC reached age five. Then I found out about RUE–Resist the Urge to Explain.

    This time around, the actual story beginning, with the MC in a crisis, is a lot closer to Page One. His introductory backstory consists of a single chapter of about 1600 words, and I do consider that to be need-to-know information.

    • Sheryl Dunn April 1, 2015 at 9:12 am #

      I love backstory. I used to avoid it too much, until I learned that little bits of it can create their own mysteries, i.e., raise questions, and make the reader want to turn the pages.

      The first draft of second chapter in my WIP used to be virtually all backstory and characterization, Today I’m working on making sure it moves the story forward because I think that’s the key element of each scene.

    • Rachel Starr Thomson April 2, 2015 at 6:14 am #

      Thanks for your response, Curtis! Like Sheryl says below, there is definitely a place for backstory. It can be a really key part of a book, in fact; and a book that lacks it can tend to feel hollow. Your changes sound good–bringing the backstory in as it’s appropriate rather than dumping it all at the beginning. Pacing really is key.

  4. Karen April 1, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    Fantastic post. I find the early scenes in my stories are the hardest for me precisely because of the backstory problem. I have one such infodump scene (heroine is driving to the hero’s place, thinking) that I know is weak, but didn’t know how to fix. Now you’ve inspired me to revise by working the same info into their actual meeting, making that scene even stronger.

    • Rachel Starr Thomson April 2, 2015 at 6:19 am #

      So glad you got some inspiration from the post! Working backstory into a meeting can be a fantastic way to get it in, because there’s so much potential for tension, character development, etc.

  5. Catie April 1, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    “As you know, you have been gone since late spring. Your father took you across the desert on his merchant journey like he always does. You know that I miss when you’re gone—I always do.”

    Ugh. I know you need to give an example, but that’s just… It made me want to take off my shoe and kill it. Ugh. All of your examples are a bit extreme. It’s easy to spot extremes, it’s the subtle “not quite there” that’s often the problem, when you feel that something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. We need more of those examples. How to make a decent text into a brilliant one.

    You’ve made me think now. There are three friends in my novel, two girls and a boy, who meet a new character, a girl, and one of the girls casually mentions to the new girl that the other girl and the boy have feelings for each other just don’t realize it yet. Now, the first girl is a chatterbug and a bit of a wiseass, not to mention she gets a kick out of watching the other two, so it’s natural she’d talk about it, but now I’m wondering if I should let it be hinted at for as long as possible. That would mean cutting out a lot of conversation about it, because the new girl doesn’t really believe it. So, you’ve given me something to think about. Thanks :).

    • Rachel Starr Thomson April 2, 2015 at 6:30 am #

      You’re welcome, Catie! Thanks for your input :). Of course I can’t comment extensively on your story without seeing it, but it sounds like you’ve got two things to balance: the character of the chatterbug on the one hand and the possibility of building a mystery on the other. I wish you all the best as you work out how you want to handle this one!

      As to the exaggeration: you might be surprised how many manuscripts I see (as a writing teacher and editor) that are every bit as extreme as my examples, but yeah, I kinda wanted to strangle that sentence too!

      Just as an aside, though: one reason I prefer to work with extreme examples rather than subtle ones is that when problems are subtle, sometimes they aren’t problems. Writers can very easily get caught up in endless rewrite cycles seeking out perfection, and I’ve seen writers desiccate their own work over issues exactly like this one–they are handling backstory just fine, but are convinced they need to suck every last drop of explanation out and translate it into something more subtle (which is often SO subtle it fails to communicate anything). As an editor I try not to contribute to that particular sinkhole–so if I’m writing to a large audience and not just working one-on-one with someone on their own writing, I’ll tend toward exaggerated examples.

      • Catie April 2, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

        Yeah, I know you can’t help me, I just wanted to thank you for making me think about it (and thinking out loud helps :)). The problem is not the chatterbug, she’d get a kick out of hinting it too (and she’s chatterbugging about unimportant stuff and keeping all the juicy secrets for herself anyway). The problem is that it’s not there just to add backstory, but to explain the group dynamics. If I just hint at it, the reader might assume there’s something already going on between the two when there isn’t and never will be. As it is now, it’s woven into a conversation fairly naturally (as far as I, as the person who wrote it, can objectively tell) so there is no pressing need to change it, but a bit of additional mystery could be a bonus. I just need to figure out a) is it even doable without confusing the reader, and b) would the rewrite be worth the trouble.

        Ugh, it sometimes seems like every other self-pubed book preview I open on Amazon or Smaswords slaps me in the face with extreme info dump right in the first paragraph. It’s a common problem, I know, and as a reader I find it extremely irritating. I hope this post will ultimately make me cringe less while book browsing. But for those of us who don’t have this problem (again, as far as I can objectively tell. I might very well be wrong) but still have other less glaring problems, it’s not as helpful. I guess it’s questionable how much can a non-beginner really learn from a blog post alone (as opposed to, for example, reading a whole book that focuses on a single topic or working one-on-one with an editor or a critique partner). Which makes me the problem here, not you :).

        I see your point. I haven’t really considered that here. Who was it that said that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned? But sometimes a subtle change can make a lot of difference. A well read writer will sometimes pick up things while reading other people’s work almost instinctively (like notice that good writers don’t info dump), but the more subtle tricks someone really needs to point out to you and explain how it’s done.

  6. Robin Patchen April 1, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    Excellent examples! Well said.

  7. Pat W. Kirk (@PatWKirk) April 1, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

    I LOLd (Okay, I laughed out loud)at “As you know, you have been gone for months.” “Why no. I was in a coma the entire time.” Thank you for showing, not telling.

  8. Jim Steinberg, Writer April 1, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

    Rachel, your timing is perfect! I was right in the middle of a backstory scene that began with too much front loading of information and hadn’t talked myself into stopping when your post came. It set me right back into putting “the past in the present,” allowing the characters’ to make reference to past events in a way that suggests all that needs to be known. It was a transformation of authorial intrusion into staying inside the POV character and letting him say what needed to be said about the past.

    Isn’t that also a good way to hint to readers what is important, and to show how the characters feel about the past?

    Thank you for summing it up so nicely. It came at just the right time.

    Jim Steinberg

  9. Christy Distler April 2, 2015 at 5:15 am #

    Great advice, Rachel. Backstory truly is critical, and how it’s used can make the reader dive deep into the story or put the book aside before finishing the first chapter. Your After is an excellent example of backstory done well.

  10. Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw April 4, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    I write noir and back story is incredibly important in particular for this sub-genre. The trick as you say, is balance… not too much, not too little else the flow of the story is lost.

    I tend to use a lot of words and it would be very easy to info dump, save something that has helped me tremendously as a writer.

    A few years ago, I joined an online flash fiction group, where each week we were given new prompts and a word limit. I learned very quickly that I was not going to tell a story worth reading if I spent 500 of my 1,000 word limit on back story.

    Writing flash tightens up your writing everywhere, not just in back story. What began as almost torture for me has become one of my favorite parts of writing a story… the back story. Oh sure, I love the action… bullets flying, racing through the city streets, clock ticking, police in hot pursuit…

    Whew! Got carried away there for a moment.

    Thank for this advice and the examples. They are great illustrations. I would never say “As you know” in noir.

    They’ll take away my card! 😉

  11. Rachel Starr Thomson April 11, 2015 at 10:50 am #

    Thanks, Veronica! I love backstory as well–it adds so much to a story. As you know ;).

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