Five Ways to Show Backstory: 1. Dramatic Narrative

We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader understands each scene. This information might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives, and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Following up on last month’s post, here is the first of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

Show the Backstory in a Dramatic Narrative that Sets Up a Scene

This type of narrative can come at the beginning of a story or fitted in between other blocks of story. It can cover a short or long time period. A key element is that it conveys information by showing, not telling, and therefore supports the story’s drama.

Example: “Homely Girl”

This dramatic narrative is from a short story by Elizabeth Brown called “Homely Girl.” The passage is quoted in the book Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver (© 2002). It is the opening of the story, leading to a scene of the girl going home as an adult to visit her mother.

“She’s a homely girl. I don’t know where she gets it,” my six-year-old ears overhear my mother saying to my Aunt Beth. I don’t know what “homely” means, but I know it’s bad. I run to my room, bury my head in my pillow and cry. Eventually, I learn what homely really means. It means to be taken to the dentist for my buckteeth: “Can you make them straighter?” To the plastic surgeon for my nose: “Can you make it smaller?” It means I am dragged to walking classes, talking classes, and posture classes: “Chin up. Shoulders back. Enunciate. Smile.” Homely means that everything I put in my mouth is carefully weighed, measured, and calculated beforehand, so I don’t take up more space than I already do. “Will she ever lose weight, Doctor?” my mother asks. “She’s just a big girl,” says Doctor Chen. Homely means that you see a look of disdain on the face of a mother who wishes her daughter could be a beauty queen. You see that look every day of your life.

What does this passage accomplish?

What does this passage do for the story?

First, it sets up the central conflict between the protagonist and her mother: the daughter’s need for love and acceptance by her parent, the parent’s unwillingness or inability to provide it. Extremely powerful stuff, on a deeply emotional level.

Second, it presents crucial information about the two characters, and gives the reader a good idea of who both of them are.

Also, it raises thematic questions: Why is physical beauty considered so important? Why does society judge women (in particular) by their physical appearance?

How does it work?

The quoted narrative accomplishes all of this with incredible economy. It spans many years of the character’s life. But it presents crucial events from those years in tiny “micro-scenes,” which are themselves dramatic. That is, they show character, dialogue, conflict, and resolution.

All of this in only 177 words! Magic.

How to use this technique

Again, this technique is to write a narrative summary that sets up the drama in the subsequent scene. To be effective, the summary must show more than it tells. As in the example, the summary may contain snippets of dialogue and micro-scenes. In any case, it embodies the critical elements of drama: conflict and action that are emotional, because they involve critical issues in the characters’ lives.

Up Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 2nd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: using a sequel that connects two scenes.

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