Friday, March 27, 2020

Reveal a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Backstory is a necessary evil in many stories, but you can sneak it in so flows naturally with the scene.

A character's past is important to their character arc, but it's an area that can easily turn into messy backstory or infodump if we're not careful. We drop in information because it has to go somewhere, and getting it out of the way quickly lets us get to the story faster.

Odds are this "drop in" of information is going to make the past feel stuck in, and feel more like backstory than a natural part of the narrative. It can stop the story, kill the pacing, and read like the author held up their hand and said, "Wait, hang on a sec, let me tell you this one thing before we go on."

When done poorly, backstory brings readers to a screeching halt and we risk losing them. When done well, the information slides by without ever drawing attention to itself.

(Here's more on Baby Got Backstory: Dealing With Backstory in Your Novel)

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.

Telling Your Backstory

When backstory stands out, it's usually because it's just stuck in there and isn't a part of the scene.

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."

As Bob and Jane walked along the abandoned midway, he 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," he said. Even if the odds were against them.
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 nothing for the reader to wonder about or be curious about. Two red flag words alert us that we're about to go into backstory: as and when. Those words frequently hang out with explained (told) information.

(Here's more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

Showing Your Backstory

But that same information can be slipped in more naturally to the scene. With just a few tweaks in the text, 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."

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.
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.

(Here's more on Living in My Head: Crafting Natural-Sounding Internal Thoughts)

Dramatizing Your Backstory

You can also take advantage of the backstory you want to convey and make it do more than simply inform readers about an important detail of the character's past.

You might dramatize the backstory, which lets readers figure out Bob worked at a carnival without stating it outright.
Jane headed for the old carnival grounds. "Maybe we'll get lucky and find something to scavenge in there."

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."
The same information is conveyed, but this 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 "Hey, Bob used to work at a carnival."

(Here's more on Infodumps Through Dialogue: Your Words Are Dead to Me)

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. It's just information. 
  • 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 cute Bob and Jane are as a couple so readers will worry 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.

How do you like to reveal a character's past?

*Originally published June 2013. Last update March 2020.

Writing exercise time! (CONTEST IS CLOSED, but feel free to do it for fun if you'd like)

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.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Here's my entry from a WIP - thank you!!!

    It’s here. The first day of eighth grade. My last year at St. Jude Middle School. I’m still mostly the same me I was on the last day of seventh grade. Still kind of short. Still more than kind of smart. And still completely confused by girls.
    There’s nothing I can do about the short part – I checked. And the smart part is mostly okay. But the girls part. I have a plan for that – avoid them as much as possible.
    That’s the what of the plan anyway. It’s the how part that’s a little fuzzy. Because out of the three hundred and fourteen students at St. Jude Middle School, one hundred and eighty-three are girls. That’s 58.28 percent. So avoiding them could be a problem. And as any engineer would tell you, every plan, no matter how well-designed, has problems – or obstacles. The biggest – and loudest – obstacle to my plan sits next to me, shoulder to almost shoulder.
    “We’re here. Can you believe we’re actually here?” Linc says for at least the seventeenth time. This time he mixes it up by elbowing me hard in what would be my bicep if I had one. All of a sudden he does have biceps – and triceps and pecs and other muscle-like things that mean he's more dangerous to sit next to than he used to be.
    “Of course I can believe it. We’ve been here for seventy-nine minutes. Which, by the way, is more than enough time for both my butt cheeks to go completely numb.” It’s also more than enough time for my hair to double in size since it’s August and the humidity is 87% and, well, that’s what my hair does.

  2. Here is mine, from a WIP called "Dead Sure:"

    "You've been tracking him for how long?"

    "Two weeks."

    "And you found out about his side business that quickly? Very nice work. Your skills might be very useful." He pressed the knife a little harder. I winced at the sharp sting of pain. "Or I could kill you now."

    I closed my eyes, holding my breath as absolute terror sank in.

    "I'll be in touch, Miss Ryan. For now, if you'd like to live, I suggest you forget everything you saw tonight."

    I didn't dare open my eyes. I sat frozen for what seemed like an eternity. When the door creaked again, I peeked to make sure it was Evan.

    Relief washed over me. I started talking before he even handed me the coffee. "You're right - about earlier - I'm exhausted, and my mind was playing tricks on me." I couldn't look at him.

    "You're lying, Casey." He sat the coffee down. He gently cupped my chin and pulled my face towards him, forcing me to look at him. "You're bleeding. Is that from earlier? What happened?"

    "Nothing, I just -"

    "Casey, in the entire time I've known you, you've never told me I'm right. I think your exact words when we broke up were 'I'd rather be set on fire than to tell you you're right.'"

    "Really? You're sure? Cause that sounds kind of harsh."

    "It's hard to forget that. Now tell me the truth."

    My hands started shaking. I couldn't handle this anymore. I was about to completely lose it.

  3. Hello! I’m a thirteen-year-old regular reader of your blog. It’s not only the best information I can find in either books or online, but it’s more inspirational and motivational than you will ever know. Thank you so much for the material you put out each week!

    Here’s the entry from a novel I’m working on right now:

    “It’s either yes or death.”

    “I’m not scared of it.”

    He stops the dizzying round of circles. With eyes like talons pressed at me, he says, “You’re arrogant.”

    “I’m bold.”

    Galthen huffs in frustration. It’s hard to hide my grin.

    “Alright then. How did he find you?”

    “I was climbing the rock walls. We call them Peril.”

    His face is like a spotless sheet. Blank, unmoving, and positively clueless.

    “Sir, what I do is a crime. Strictly prohibited by laws of insanity. Touching, let alone climbing, these rocks leads to serious punishments, most often whipping in public. But sometimes, you don't get another chance.”

    “Climbing… the walls… is a death sentence?”

    He doesn’t get it. He really doesn’t get it. Is he that ignorant? Does he really not know what his men do to us?

    My voice breaks as I say, “The walls keep us villagers imprisoned in our own little hell. Usually, four people disappear from Cratum every month. Most times, we don’t know why. We just pray we're not next.”

    “Lord, she’s a liar,” says Galthen.

    “You just prayed you weren’t next,” Allegor repeats.

    I shift my weight backwards. “Everyone bet that I was next.”

    “I would have, too.”

    My eyes burn as I push the words out, “I climbed and nothing happened. Sir, that scared people.”

    “Because you were titanium? Because nothing could hurt you?”

    “Because the regime wasn’t attacking. Maybe they found something worse than the "torture and death" method. Maybe just torture. Endless torture.”

  4. Taela felt her cousin’s eyes taking her measure and tried not to fidget.

    “You’ve grown so tall, I barely recognized you,” Selita said. “Is everything all right at home?”

    “Everything’s fine,” Taela said around a bite of meat.

    Selita looked unconvinced. “You’ve barely seen seventeen summers. You shouldn’t be traveling alone with all the trouble in the kingdom. I’m surprised Uncle Merden approves.”

    “Uncle Merden doesn’t approve of anything I do.”

    Selita leaned toward her. “Have you been arguing again?”

    “Not anymore.” Taela tore off a chunk of bread. “Uncle won’t speak to me and I do my best to stay out of his way.”

    “Taela, I know it’s hard, but Uncle Merden is good to you. You ought to be more considerate of his feelings.”

    Taela gazed down into the bowl. It was true that after her father died, Uncle Merden had taken her in and given her a home. But he didn’t approve of the way Taela had been raised and made no secret of it. Taela was far too restless to be the well-mannered, demure girl Uncle Merden expected. She’d grown up without a mother and had run wild. “I can’t help being who I am.”

  5. Here's mine!
    I cleared my throat in an attempt to squash the sarcasm rolling around on my tongue.
    "Unavailable. I’m Medusa Kalypto. We’ve met before. I’m the official liaison for immortals. I’m here to speak on behalf of Hermes about his recent move." I carved out a strained smile on my face. I hated telling humans my name. They always looked at me as if I was the original Medusa, not realizing Gorgons had an obsession of naming their daughters after her. No, I wasn't some zombie gorgon come back from the dead, with a reattached head. I was just me, another Medusa trying to carve out a life away from the insufferable Isle of Stone.
    Her hard gaze held mine for an agonizing minute before relenting. “Medusa. Yes, I remember you. Hermes’s little puppy dog. Keep the barking to a minimum or should I say biting?” She pointed to the snakes swirling around my face, my constant companions. This was going from bad to worse in record time.
    But I might as well have a little bit of fun going down. “I wouldn’t provoke them. They have an appetite for southern fried bitch,” I said.
    Hermes had promised this interview was a fluff piece, "no more than five minutes," he said. My whole job as official liaison was a fluff piece. What was I doing here anymore? I had a BA in social work with an emphasis on immortal rehabilitation, and an MA in women's studies for gods' sakes.

  6. Oh, sorry. That's a scene from my WIP, The Fatal Crown.

    Janice, I love your blog! I discovered it yesterday and spent the whole day reading through old posts. I can't wait to buy your writing book.

  7. Here's mine...(forgot to put the internal thoughts in brackets above so deleted it, done that now)...couldn't put it in purple like you do!!!
    Thundering claps and roaring hoots of the hundreds of onlookers, outside the small chamber, started her. She pushed her thoughts aside and spat on the floor. Some blood came out along. Nothing new in that. Seven years of service in the Prince's Dire had given her nothing but blood. Scars and bruises were a part of her now.

    The door lifted slowly, and lights crept inside. (It's time). She closed her eyes and took a long breath. Not to calm her nerves. They were more than calmed for this. After all, it was the one thing she was ever built to do.

    She walked out to the large hall, nostalgia surging up her veins. How long had it been since she last walked these halls? She somehow couldn't remember it.

    Outside, she found an old man limping toward her, squinting his eyes to have a better look.

    When he was close enough, she saw him pause. His eyes widening, lips twitching.

    (Not very fond of me, then? Couldn't really blame you, old man.)

    “Ladies and gentlemen of Paranorth," the old man said, hesitatingly. "Our next contestant, is the former Captain of the Prince’s Dire.”

    The crowd erupted in a collective sigh.

    Carha scowled. There was a time she took pride in that rank. Long before her exile. Long before, when she'd earned the names like the Huntress, the Bloodbringer, the Desolator, Queen of the Sult Massacre, and whatnot. All the names that glorified her ability to create bloodshed.

    There was no glory in seeing others bleed. She'd learnt that lesson the hard way.

    (You're more than that), she reminded herself. There's more to you than blood. You've changed.)

  8. I study what he’s typed so far—accented é’s and í’s show up among the garble. Getting a full view of the keyboard, I finally see—the letters are Spanish. Because he bought the laptop in Argentina. Like an idiot.

    “Um.” I resist the urge to bury my face in my hands. “I’m not sure if that’s something I can help with.”

    His beady eyes blink through his bifocals. “But you’re a librarian, right?”

    Yes. A librarian. Not a technician. “Yeah. With a degree and everything.” I’m unable to hide my sarcasm. But I don’t really care, now.
    He scrunches his face, surprised. “Wait—you need a degree for that?”

    What an old, tired, question. Something I heard even before I entered library school—librarians don’t do anything, and therefore need no education. Yet we can make a Spanish-speaking laptop into English. Obviously.

    “Maybe come back tomorrow, when the IT guys are here,” I offer. He shrugs, and keeps tinkering with his hopeless machine.

    I saunter back to the desk, and watch the time tick. Slow.

    I haven’t always been this cynical. In library school, I was eager to do the best job I could—I pictured myself in a college library, answering questions and conducting instruction sessions. Presenting at conferences. Contributing to the profession. Everything my instructors talked about.

    But that was beaten out of me quickly.

  9. Here's mine.

    Evonna knelt on the beach with her hands clasped behind her back, not that the soldiers had asked her preference on the matter. Despite shackles biting into her wrists and a trio of swords pointed towards her, she smirked at the captors.

    “Confess!” a voice behind her commanded.

    Blast. She’d recognize that sultry accent blindfolded. What was Dorian doing there? However, she refused to panic and chose to lash out instead. “Should kill you too.”

    “Oh, please try, luvie.”

    She gritted her teeth as Dorian yanked down on her ponytail, forcing her to face the sky and the only other Royal Assassin with the stomach to execute without a trial. Would he forgo torture and jump straight to the end? His charcoal eyes revealed nothing. Damn. Even after five years, she still couldn’t read him.

    Dorian traced a knife across her exposed throat and snarled, “Try ‘n spill more innocent blood.”

    “Innocent?! Those–“

    “–were my men, Evonna. Mine!”

    “Don’t care. They murdered her. Defiled her! Cessie was the innocent.”

    Images of her baby sister teasing the family pet raced across Evonna’s mind, followed by visions of Cessie’s blood staining the cobblestones.

    A roar shook her. “What did Traggo tell you? That my men raped and killed your Cessie?”

    Evonna squirmed in her backwards arched position, and Dorian leaned over, continuing to slice shallow cuts across her throat. His beard scraped her ear when he whispered, “Didn’t you learn anything from our kill assignments together? Traggo always lies.”

  10. I dragged Shay to the hallway, out of earshot. “He’s too badly hurt for either of us to handle solo. Can you do a tandem healing?”

    “A tandem?”

    “We both heal him, with me doing most of the—”

    “That’s an Arban technique!”

    I stared into his wide eyes, sensing his shock and…revulsion? What was so bad about my techniques? “It’s a valid healing method.”

    “It’s banned! Where did you even learn that?”

    “At the Academy.” I couldn’t keep my impatience out of my voice. The dwarf was dying, for pity’s sake. We didn’t have time for an argument. “And it’s banned in the Realm, not Cratia.”

    Flatly, he said, “You went to the Academy.”

    I pressed my fingers to my temple, trying to shut out the pain that spilled through the wall. “Yes, Daric, I went to the Academy!”

    “B-But you don’t have a healer’s tattoo--?”

    “I left before I graduated.” Before he could ask his next question, I added, “Ran out of money, all right?” He closed his mouth. I could still feel curiosity, doubt, and now a tinge of fear, but we didn’t have more time to waste. “Can you do a tandem or not?”

    “I’ve never tried.”

    I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “All you need to do is rest your hands on him and reach for his magic, like a direct sense. I’ll do the rest.”

    “You learned this at the Academy?”

    “Yes.” Invented, learned…same thing, really.

  11. There were several small side and back doors that Caellahn knew of, but Olan always had them guarded at night, and the shift wouldn’t have changed yet. True, most of the guards were incompetent and he could probably quiet them without raising an alarm, but he didn’t like the idea; there was always the chance of being bested, or of someone managing a shout before the scuffle was over. Olan’s personal guards would be a challenge in themselves, as Caellahn doubted he’d be able to get to the commander without confronting them at some point. He preferred not to engage in combat until he absolutely had to.

    Which left only one option.

    Pressing himself as close to the shadows as possible, Caellahn crept to the edge of the forge, then pressed himself up against the fort’s stone wall and eased out along its length. One step, two steps, right foot sliding in to meet the left before the left struck out on its own again. His fingers fluttered over the surface of the wall, feeling his way forward. Seconds dragged into minutes, and minutes into what seemed like hours before his hand finally reached out and brushed against the surface of the keep. He smiled to himself.

    The secret entrance had been there since he could remember, and perhaps since the fort was first built. He’d found it as a boy, snooping around in the corners and passageways he had no business poking through. No one ever seemed to mind; most ignored him which had been his greatest advantage as a child, and he had made each discovery and every secret his own. There was probably no one else since the beginning of Fort Gallant who knew as much about the stronghold as he did.

  12. I forgot to say what that was from! It's part of a scene from my WIP, "Song of the Daystar". :)

  13. I really struggled with this in my debut novel. I tried variations on JK Rowling's Pensieve device, tried telling it outright, tried alternating between past and present. I ended up using a mix of all three. Reviewers note they'd like to see less. I'm still learning how to do it more effectively.

    Anyway, this is from my WIP. My edits haven't reached this point. It's only first draft.

    When Isshi didn’t answer, Juno turned on her heel and stalked away. Her heart felt leaden in her chest. Men of God. Killing. She tried to think of some way to stop it, to prevent the bloodshed to come. Nothing came to her. Isshi had been her only hope, the one man who seemed opposed to fighting. Apparently, she’d been wrong about him.

    Her thoughts drifted back to her senior year in high school. John McDermitt--she’d fallen head over heels for him. He was everything she thought she wanted, smart, funny, handsome with light brown hair and blue eyes. They’d dated through the first semester and into the second. She’d even prodded him into talking about their future. That’s when he told her he’d applied to West Point.

    Instantly, her dreams turned to ash. She called him a murderer-in-training, accused him of worse. Through hot tears, she demanded an explanation.

    He placed his hands on her trembling shoulders. “What if a gun was the only thing standing between the people you care about and a charging lion. It wouldn’t matter how magnificent the lion was, because you know you can’t stop it, not without shooting. That’s all I’m doing, Juno. Protecting the people I care about when everything else fails. I hope someday, you’ll understand that.”

  14. I just took notes! Good stuff here that I will apply to my WIP, which has a lot of info needed to be relayed from the past and I have to make sure it's put in there gracefully and not explanatorily (is that a word? Probably not. LOL).

  15. I may have commented already on this post, but glad to get this refresher!

    1. Multiple comments are fine :) I like refreshers, too. It's nice to be reminded of things I might be slacking on.

  16. Great post. Hate that I missed the contest.