This month we wrap up our series on conveying backstory in fiction without losing dramatic momentum.
Review: What We’re Talking About
In the Introduction to the series, we discussed the elements of dramatic writing as described by Jerry Cleaver in his book Immediate Fiction. As illustrated, these essential elements are
- Conflict, defined as character want/goal plus obstacle
- Action by the character to deal with the obstacle.
- Resolution, success or failure, leaving the character closer or farther from their goal.
All of this is supported by
- Emotion. To identify with your characters, readers must feel for them.
- Showing, the crucial method of presenting the story.
Again, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that readers 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.
The problem we’re exploring is how a writer can convey all of the backstory without losing the reader’s interest in the immediacy of the drama.
Technique #5: Start a Scene Then Drop in Sections of Backstory
This is a technique that is often employed but not often discussed. As a reader, once you start noticing it, you’ll see it is used often.
Basically, the author starts a scene in the present, ideally with an emotional hook to engage the reader. Then after a few lines, the narrative skips back to reveal backstory. This is not a flashback, just bits of exposition sprinkled in, usually from the point of view of the character that we are following in the scene.
Essentially, the writer drops a scene in the reader’s lap, gets them involved, then steps back here and there to explain the backstory.
Example from Kim Stanley Robinson
Science fiction and Fantasy typically require the author to cover a lot of backstory—specifically, details about the world in which the story is set and how it differs from our world.
This example is from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an epic, award-winning novel about the colonization of the Mars. The scene takes place on one of the first colony ships, right after launching. One hundred carefully-selected colonists are celebrating.
In Torus D’s dining hall, they mingled in a kind of cocktail party, celebrating the departure … Maya wandered about, sipping freely from a mug of champagne, feeling slightly unreal and extremely happy, a mix that reminded her of her wedding reception many years before. Hopefully, this marriage would go better than that one had, she thought, because this one was going to last forever … Maya turned down an offered refill, feeling giddy enough. Besides, this was work. She was co-mayor of this village, so to speak, responsible for group dynamics, which were bound to get complex. Antarctic habits kicked in even at this moment of triumph, and she listened and watched like an anthropologist, or a spy.
“The shrinks have their reasons. We’ll end up fifty happy couples.”
“And they already know the match-ups.”
She watched them laugh. Smart, healthy, supremely well-educated—was this the rational society at last, the scientifically-designed community that had been the dream of the Enlightenment? But there was Arkady, Nadia, Vlad, Ivana. She knew the Russian contingency too well have to have many illusions on that score. They were just as likely to end up resembling an undergraduate dorm at a technical university, occupied by bizarre pranks and lurid affairs. Except, they looked kind of old for that sort of thing …
Excerpt (c) 1992 by Kim Stanley Robinson
What Do We Learn Here?
This passage, part of a longer scene, drops us into the middle of the action. We’re in the viewpoint of the psychologist Maya, and each action and snippet of dialog is followed with her reflections— which provide much backstory about Maya, her colleagues, and the mission.
- We learn about the colonists and how they were selected.
- There are different international contingents, and we learn something of the character and behaviors of the Russian contingent in particular.
- We learn Maya’s role, and her concerns about it. Notice the comparison to a wedding reception. This skillfully connects a context with which the reader is totally unfamiliar (a spaceship community) with something very familiar (a wedding party) which has common emotional associations.
- We also find out that Maya’s marriage did not last, and that this group community has to last forever. For these folks, there is no coming back from Mars.
- Finally, the comment about ‘the rational society dreamed of by the Enlightenment’ links this story of a future time with an earlier period of human history. This reflection on big-picture philosophical/historical ideas is something that quality science fiction can do in a way no other kind of fiction can.
Using This Technique
Using this method in your writing takes some practice. Begin by searching out good examples in writers whom you admire, and analyze them carefully.
- Start the scene with an emotional hook. Engage the reader on the feeling level.
- Be clear who the viewpoint character is. See the scene from their point of view and note their responses to each bit. As these responses arise, describe them and link them to the necessary backstory that the reader needs to appreciate what is going on.
- Keep the chunks of backstory small.
- Finish the backstory exposition no later than halfway through the scene. Then write the rest of the scene—like all of your scenes—to show conflict, action and resolution.
This concludes the series on conveying backstory in fiction. I would love to know what you think about this and previous posts.