Five Ways to Show Backstory:
4. Characters Tell Each Other

Returning from our mermaid adventure last month, we are back to talking about the craft of fiction.

In previous posts in this series, we’ve examined different ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

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 #4: Characters Tell Each Other the Backstory

We’re all familiar with scenes where a character learns some backstory by hearing it from another character. When done well, this is a seamless and effective way to convey information.

But you have to be careful. Done poorly, this technique can easily seem contrived, the dialogue ‘stagy.’ In science fiction writing, we are warned to avoid the “As we all know, Jim” syndrome. Never, never start a speech with “As we all know.” If we all know it, why are you saying it!?

Example: From Robert B. Parker

In this example from Parker’s , Death in Paradise, Jesse Stone is chief of police for a small town in Massachusetts. He’s investigating the murder of a teenage girl, and it’s led him to meet Lily, the principal of the high school. They’ve covered the details of the case, and now the conversation turns personal.

Lily crossed her legs the other way. Jesse waited.

“How did you go from shortstop to policeman, Jesse?”

“My father was a cop,” Jesse said. “In Tucson. When I couldn’t play ball anymore, it seemed like the other thing that I might know how to do.”

“And how did you end up in Paradise?”

“I was a cop in L.A. I got fired for being a drunk. And my marriage broke up. And I figured I’d try to start over as far from L.A. as I could.”

“Are you still drinking?”

“Mostly not,” Jesse said.

“Was that why your marriage broke up?”

“No,” Jesse said. “It didn’t help the marriage, and the marriage didn’t help it. But there were other things.”

“There always are. Aren’t there?”

“You’ve been divorced?”

“Twice.”

Excerpt © 2001 by Robert B. Parker

What We Learn in this Scene

In just 130 words here we get a lot of backstory. We learn not only about Jesse’s history (which readers who have read this far know some of already), but also a bit of Lily’s.

In terms of story-craft, notice how the exposition comes up in a scene that is mainly about something else. Suddenly, it shifts gears and moves the characters’ personal stories along.

Also, it not only tells some of Jesse’s history, but it shows us how he sees himself and presents himself to others: world weary, straight and direct, brutally honest about himself. Significantly, the prose style mirrors these characteristics, and is also extremely easy to read.

Tips for Using This Technique

Again, to disclose backstory in dialogue, you need to be crafty:

  • First, make sure the character would realistically learn the information from the other character. (Avoid the “As we all know” pitfall.)
  • Secondly, present the dialogue in short chunks, not long speeches.
  • Finally, make the disclosure part of an emotionally-engaging scene. Your readers must feel for the characters or they won’t care about the backstory.
Up Next

Next time, we will wrap up this series by discussing the last of our Five Techniques, one that is frequently used but rarely discussed: Sprinkling Backstory into a Scene.

Leave a Reply