Following up on the previous two posts (see this post for the start), here is the second of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.
Reminder: 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.
2. Show the Backstory in a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes
This technique makes us of the Scene and Sequence model, which is frequently discussed in books on writing fiction and on screenwriting.
The basic idea is that a story is constructed of scenes and sequels, with rising tension as we go from beginning to end. In this model, a sequel shows a character’s response to the preceding scene and sets the stage for the next scene.
A sequel is also a great place to work in some backstory.
Example: From Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon
This example is from Fool Moon, the second of Jim Butcher’s famous Dresden Files urban fantasy novels. Harry Dresden is a private eye who also happens to be a wizard. He consults with the Chicago Police Department on supernatural cases. The following is part of the sequel to Chapter 1. In a bar, Dresden has met with Lieutenant Murphy, and she has asked him to come along to help investigate an unusual murder…
"Murphy declined to ride in the Blue Beetle, my old Volkswagen bug. The Beetle wasn’t really blue, not anymore. One of the doors had been replaced with a green duplicate, the other one with white, when something with claws had shredded the originals. The hood had been slagged by fire, and my mechanic, Mike, had replaced it with the hood from a red vehicle. The important thing is that the Beetle runs, even if it doesn’t do it very fast, and I’m comfortable with the car. Mike has declared that the VW bug is the easiest car in the world to repair, and so that’s what I drive. He keeps it running eight or nine days in ten. That’s phenomenal. Technology tends to foul up around wizards—flip on a light switch, and it’ll be the time the bulb burns out. Drive past a streetlight and it’ll pick just then to flicker and die. Whatever can go wrong will, automobiles included. I didn’t think it made much sense for Murphy to risk her vehicle when she could have taken mine, but she said she’d take her chances."
Excerpt (c) 2001 by Jim Butcher
What Backstory do we learn here?
On the surface, it seems simple. The main thing we learn is that Harry Dresden drives an old, beat up car. But this tells us several things about him:
- In typical hard-boiled private eye fashion, he lives on the edge financially.
- He’s not pretentious in the material sense. He doesn’t need a status symbol car to bolster his ego.
- His car takes a beating from various monsters. He’s had some interesting cases.
- And, he is nonchalant about dealings with these supernatural dangers.
We also learn that “Technology tends to foul up around wizards.” In Fantasy, the writer has to convey a lot of exposition, because the world is, at least to some degree, different from the everyday real world we all think we know and love. How does the magic work? What are its limitations, drawbacks, and consequences? This passage conveys some of this critical information while describing Harry’s car.
One thing more: We not only learn about Dresden’s character, but also Murphy’s—again, indirectly. We learn that, despite the hazards of exposure to a wizard, Murphy is “willing to take her chances” and use her own car. Why? Perhaps she not willing to be seen riding in a beat up old VW. But also—and we are shown this again and again about her character—Murphy is tough and wants to in charge. She wants to drive.
So, what looks at first glance like a simple bit of backstory about the character’s car, turns out to convey a lot of information.
This illustrates an important principle of good fiction: Everything in the story should be accomplishing several goals. Every passage does double or triple duty: moves the action forward, delineates character, perhaps describes the setting, or explains the background for what goes on.
The best-written stories are multi-layered in this way.
Next time, we’ll look at the 3rd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: Creating a Scene where a single character reflects.