This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at avoiding backstory, while still showing a character's history.
A character's past is important to her character arc, but it's an area that can easily turn into messy backstory or even infodump if we're not careful. Information is dropped in because it has to go somewhere, and getting it out of the way quickly lets us get to the story faster.
Odds are this is going to make the past feel stuck in, and feel more like backstory than a natural part of the narrative. It'll stop the story, kill the pacing, and read like the author held up her hand and said, "Wait, hang on a sec, let me tell you this one thing before we go on."
When done poorly, readers feel that screeching halt and we risk losing them. When done well, the information slides by without ever drawing attention to itself.
(More on backstory here)
Revealing a character's past without dumping it on the reader is one aspect of show don't tell. It's conveying critical information without explaining it outright.
For example, let's say it's vital that readers know Bob used to work at a carnival as one of those barkers who gets people to play games. There are several ways to insert this information in:
Jane headed for the old carnival grounds. "Maybe we can find the parts in there."This is standard backstory insertion. The information is dropped in, but it doesn't flow with the rest of the scene and doesn't add to Bob's character at all. Almost everything is stated outright, so there's no need for the reader to try to figure out anything at all. The red flag words that say this is about to go into backstory: as and when. Those words frequently hang out with explained information.
As Bob and Jane walked along the abandoned midway, Bob thought back to when he used to work at a carnival just like this. He'd spent all day trying to get people to spend five dollars on a ring-toss game that only one in a thousand could win.
"I suppose it's worth a try." Even if the odds were against them.
(More on red flags for telling here)
A few tweaks and we can shift this more into Bob's head and smooth the narrative flow:
Jane headed for the old carnival grounds. "Maybe we'll get lucky and find something to scavenge in there."Shifting into Bob's head and voice makes this read more like a memory than just dumped-in information. It also relates to what's happening in the scene, and even foreshadows the challenges they're facing. They're taking a risk, and the odds of them succeeding are pretty slim.
Bob sighed. Probably not. He used to work at a carnival just like this once. Spent all day trying to get people to blow five bucks on a ring-toss game that only one in a thousand could win. Finding replacement parts for the generator in there was probably closer to one in a million.
"I suppose it's worth a try." Even if they were risking a whole lot more than five bucks.
(More on internalization here)
You might also go full-on into show, letting the reader figure out Bob worked at a carnival without being quite so obvious.
Jane headed for the old carnival grounds. "Maybe we'll get lucky and find something to scavenge in there."The same basic information is conveyed, but it also shows the playfulness between the characters. It sets up future carnival jokes and a reason for Bob to be familiar with the carnival ruins without banging readers over the head with "Bob used to work at a carnival."
Bob jumped up on a rock and bowed with a flourish. "Step right up and try your luck, little lady. Just five dollars for ten rings and your chance to win a grimy old part that could save your life!"
Jane laughed. "Have you ever considered life as a professional carny?"
"Tried it once. Got fired after six months."
"Ah, how sad. A terrible waste of potential."
"At least I got to live the dream."
She grinned. "How about you and your dream scrounge us up a pair of working sparkplugs."
(More on avoiding infodumps through dialog here)
A character's past can be revealed without having to stop the story to explain it. You could craft a quick paragraph or a longer scene, depending on what else you want to do with the information. In example one, I spell it all out and there's no sense of wonder or mystery. In example two, I use it to foreshadow and remind readers of the risks in a way that feels like Bob worrying about this. In example three, I use it to show how Bob and Jane are as a couple, make the reader like them during a playful moment so they'll worry more when something bad happens in a few pages.
Getting to know a character is part of the fun of reading, so think about when, where, and how you reveal that past to your reader. Let them work for it a little and they'll enjoy the rewards all the more.
Writing exercise time! (CONTEST IS CLOSED)
In 250 words or less, show information about a character's past without resorting to backstory or infodump.
Winner gets a 1000-word critique. Contest is open to everyone.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound