This is the fourth in a series of posts (beginning here) explaining five ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.
For our purposes, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader will understand a scene. This might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.
Technique #3: Create a Scene where a Character Reflects on the Backstory
In real life, we all spend time thinking about our problems. Your characters can do the same.
In this method, the author writes a scene in which—rather than two or more characters interacting—a single character reflects. The scene might be written in first person (internal monologue) or third person, but it is an immediate scene. That is, we are present with the character, and the character takes some actions along the way. But the focus of the scene is on the character’s reflections: on where they are in the story, how they got here, what problems they face, what they might do about them.
This technique is a very efficient way to convey lots of backstory economically.
Example: from John Grisham
This passage is from Grisham’s best-selling crime thriller, The Client. Set in Chapter 2, the scene presents lots of backstory setting up the rest of the novel. We’re following a New Orleans criminal named Barry the Blade. Expecting to meet his lawyer (Jerome) for dinner, he’s just phoned the lawyer’s office and been told Jerome left the office at 9 AM and has not been seen since.
The Blade slammed the phone down and stormed through the hallway, then caught himself and began to strut as he neared the tables and the faces. The restaurant was beginning to fill. It was almost five. He just wanted a few drinks and then a nice dinner with his lawyer so they could talk about his mess. Just drinks and dinner, that’s all. The Feds were watching, and listening. Jerome was paranoid, and just last week told Barry he thought they had wired his law office. So they would meet here and have a nice meal without worrying about eavesdroppers and bugging devices. They needed to talk. Jerome Clifford had been defending prominent New Orleans thugs for fifteen years—gangsters, pushers, politicians—and his record was impressive. He was cunning and corrupt, completely willing to buy people who could be bought. He drank with the judges and slept with their girlfriends. He bribed cops and threatened the jurors. He schmoozed with the politicians and contributed when asked. Jerome knew what made the system tick, and when a sleazy defendant with money needed help in New Orleans, he invariably found his way to the law offices of W. Jerome Clifford… Barry’s case, however, was something different…
Excerpt © 1993 by John Grisham
What do we learn here?
The scene goes after on the above, but in just these 200 words we learn a lot.
We get a clear picture of Barry, conveyed both by how he acts in public and how he thinks. Notice in the first paragraph how he begins to “storm,” then catches himself and resumes his characteristic “strut.” He is emotional, but carefully controls what he shows to the world.
Notice also the rapid-fire summary of his thoughts in the second and third paragraphs. This conveys not only the information content of the backstory, but Barry’s emotional state in thinking about it.
The third paragraph is all about Jerome Clifford, and gives us a clear picture of him and his shady business dealings. While this might be characterized as an “info dump” it is kept interesting by the strong, direct writing. In that regard, note the colorful adjectives and action verbs: “cunning and corrupt”, “bribed”, “threatened”, “schmoozed.”
Tips for using this technique
To use this method in your fiction:
- Set up a scene where a character can think about their problems. This might be while taking a walk, working out, taking a shower, waiting for a bus—any situation where a person might spend time reflecting.
- Summarize the backstory from the character’s point of view. Why are they thinking about his? How will they be effected?
- Make it emotional. Why are they worried or tense about the situation? What’s the worst that could happen to them? (Bonus points: Can you raise the stakes and make it even worse?)
- Keep it short. Info dumps are only deleterious when they’re long. Then they interrupt narrative tension and cause readers to yawn. So break up the character’s reflections with present actions, keeping the reflective passages brief.
Again, this technique of building scenes where the characters are reflecting can be very effective in conveying a lot of backstory information in a short space.
Next time, we’ll look at the 4th of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory, that tried and true technique where characters tell each other the backstory.