Writing Backstory Through Dialogue

Backstory is one of the trickier elements of writing. We have to take our readers back in time to let them know some of the past, but how do we do it without interrupting the flow of the story? Jerry Jenkins is here today to discuss one of the more organic methods for including character backstory without grinding the action to a halt.

What are we to do now that the flashback has fallen into disfavor with today’s readers? Apparently they no longer have the patience for a sudden stop in the story so we can show how our character got where she is today.

Used to be you could invent something to remind her of her childhood or her relationship with her father or the first time she fell in love. Then you’d have her daydream or zone out and remember everything about some poignant incident from years past.

Well, I agree that got to be a clichè—always followed by someone somehow jarring her back to the present.

Regardless, we’re writing for people who get most of their information from screens, so what do we do?

Tell Your Story in Order

Gone is the luxury of taking the character (and the reader) back and rendering the old incident the way it happened. Readers want to read chronologically, and they don’t like the story put on hold to accommodate a flashback.

But we can’t ignore the past without throwing character motivation out with the bathwater. Our characters are who they are and do what they do because of who they once were and what happened to them then.

So what’s the solution?

Good news! You can include your character’s backstory without interrupting the flow of your story.

Backstory is the new solution, and I have to admit it’s better. It doesn’t slow the story, doesn’t force us to artificially create for our heroes a block of time during which they relive some powerful past experience.

What is Backstory?

Don’t mistake it for an abbreviated form of flashback. In its simplest form, backstory is everything that’s happened to your character before your novel opens. In essence you’re writing backstory when you identify a middle-aged man as “General so-and-so,” or a young woman as “Dr. so-and-so.”

Such people weren’t born with those titles and the roles they imply, so immediately readers realize these characters have pasts—and they can even imagine what they were like.

Does your character have a scar? That implies backstory. A limp? It will emerge whether it was congenital or the result of an injury or disease, but regardless, that’s backstory.

How to Write Backstory Through Dialogue

Flashbacks are obvious. They scream, “We’re headed into the past!” But backstory sneaks up on you. Use it over a flashback to avoid breaking the flow of your story. I’ve found the best way to manage this is through dialogue.

Backstory example (at an amusement park):

“You’re not getting me on that ride, Madison,” Suzie said, “Don’t even—”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Still having those dreams?”

Suzie looked away. “Not so much anymore, but once in a while.”

“You’d think after all these years…”

“I’d still rather not talk about it, okay?”

“Sure, sorry.”

See all we’ve learned from that otherwise innocuous exchange? Something years ago still causes nightmares. Naturally, we’ll eventually have to pay off on that set-up, and that’s what keeps readers turning pages.

Whatever the trauma was, you can hint at it like this more and more throughout the story, revealing more each time. Eventually something or someone from her past will show up and force the issue—and the whole story will come out.

But you see the difference? It’ll be onstage now, be recounted and explained now. Sure, it happened years ago, but it emerges as part of the current story. That’s subtly using backstory without resorting to flashback.

One More…

One of the best uses of backstory I’ve seen is from the 2016 movie The Magnificent Seven.

Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter and leader of the titular seven. Ethan Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux, a sharpshooter.

They’re strategizing to protect a town and avenge a woman who saw her husband shot to death. Robicheaux nods toward the woman and says to Chisolm, “She’d be about the same age as your sister, wouldn’t she?”

“Uh-huh.”

Robicheaux says, “Just want to make sure we’re fighting the battle in front of us instead of the battle behind us.”

That’s it. That’s the backstory. We don’t know what it means, but we know we’re going to find out. They’re not going to set up something like that and not tell us what happened. We’re going to find that our hero, Sam Chisolm, was once a victim.

Is he really out to protect somebody out of a sense of honor, or is he out for personal revenge? That’s the perfect example.

Tell me in the comments below how you’ll use backstory in your work in progress. And feel free to share a favorite example of backstory you’ve heard or read.

Jerry B. Jenkins is a 21-Time New York Times bestselling novelist (including The Left Behind series) and biographer (Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Billy Graham, and many others) with sales of over 70 million copies. He shares his little-known writing secrets with aspiring authors at JerryJenkins.com through in-depth guides (like this one on how to publish a book).

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Backstory, Character Wound, Characters, Dialogue, Flashbacks, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Writing Backstory Through Dialogue

  1. :Donna says:

    No, question you really know your stuff, Jerry (read “Left Behind” due to my boyfriend’s love for the series!—yep, the WHOLE thing!). I agree with you about “The Magnificent Seven” and now I’m wanting to watch the movie lol Thanks for the writing tips!

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  3. Tuttle N. Texas says:

    Good stuff. As a devotee of the late-great Elmore Leonard, I’m convinced that all exposition needed can be conveyed in dialogue.

  4. Mark Marderosian says:

    This has been a great discussion that made me ruminate over that 5% of my manuscript that is back story / flashback. I just heard from my sixth impartial beta reader last night. I’m totally thrilled the six out of ten who have reported back to date couldn’t “put book down” and all six mentioned enjoying the back story as it contrasted with the main story. This makes me confident that the passages are now worth “fighting” for and keeping.
    If it’s working…hey! I just thought this phrase up: “If ain’t broke…don’t fix it.”

  5. Wendy says:

    As stephen King says, rules are made to be broken. But I agree I’m tired of flashbacks and think weaving backstory in will be a nice change and challenge at the same time.

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  7. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Prologues, double spaces between sentences, double quotation marks, and rhetorical questions are some of the things agents are supposed to hate, notwithstanding that publishers and general readers don’t seem to have a problem with them.

    Some commentators draw a distinction between flashbacks and non-chronological stories, but it seems a rather fine distinction. Most stories are actually more than one story. Stopping one strand of a story to tell another may frustrate some readers, but can also add suspense. We’re talking about recreational fiction after all, not workshop manuals where efficiency is everything.

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  9. Stories out of order are interesting to me. I think it has to be done well and that’s the key. I read a suspense novella a couple of years ago where the chapters alternated between 6 months in the past, and the present time.. But the chapters in the past continued to catch up to the chapters in the present and it made for a very unique storyline when everything collided together. I guess you can call them flashbacks, because they explained what has happening in the present, but they were also their own mini storyline if that makes sense.

    I personally don’t mind flashbacks in books as long as they’re not super long and drawn out I also don’t mind dream sequences, which is another taboo lol.

    Speaking of what the professionals like v. dislike, I read all over the internet that pros hate prologues. However, when querying my first novel, one editor suggested I add a prologue, and about half the books I read (traditionally published) have prologues…lol go figure right?

    If you want to break the rules, break them well.

    • I recently read a book that was similar to this, with the chapters alternating between past and present, and I agree that it worked. But I think it worked because it was part of the structure; I wouldn’t categorize those passages as flashbacks but as a dual storyline. IMO, flashbacks can be ca problem when there’s one or two beefy ones cutting into the current story.

    • Mark Marderosian says:

      That’s interesting. Thanks for pointing out that distinction! I realize now my “flashbacks” are actually an earlier timeline that eventually merges with the main story line. They stop when the merging happens halfway through the story, and they only constitute 5% of total word count.
      As I mention elsewhere, this is a great discussion. It’s made me reexamine my WIP. I’ve tweaked some things and now feel confident to leave other things as they stand.

  10. Robin Mason says:

    My current WIP is about twin sisters, and their antics pranking friends and family – and teachers – swapping places. Till, of course, the year one gets glasses and the other gets braces… LOL The pranks from their earlier years will come to light via chats – and lots of laughs – with their friends, a la “Remember that time… “

  11. I like the idea of backstory versus flashback. Sounds like a good way to bring the past into the current picture. I remember that scene from The Magnificent Seven. It worked well!

  12. Possble to adjust those to backstory hinted at in dialogue, Mark?

    • Mark Marderosian says:

      Hi Jerry,
      I’m exploring that now. This whole thread and discussion has been a great catalyst for reexamining the WIP. But there’s major scene in middle that simply works as a separate element. To dialogue out a major scene between four main characters bring it into the realm of sounding theatrical and I want to avoid a stage play feel as it wouldn’t be correct for this context.

  13. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    I’m not surprised none of your six beta readers complained about your 5% flashbacks, but both gatekeepers complained. That suggests quite a disconnect between professional and popular tastes. Ideally, gatekeepers should learn and respect popular tastes and relay them back to writers, while not ignoring the gatekeeper’s own tastes. Meanwhile, we writers hope to please both publishing professionals and our ultimate readers.

    • This doesn’t surprise me, either. I recently checked out a book that everyone was raving about, but I couldn’t get through the first chapter because of all the weak writing (repeated words, stilted dialogue, telling, etc.). This led me to an epiphany: we as authors care much more about the writing itself than many readers do. It’s simply not the deal-breaker that I’ve always thought it to be.

      However, I will say that I encounter this problem most of the time with self-published books. Please, nobody lynch me ;). There are traditionally published books containing weak writing and self-published books that are top-notch quality. I’m not making a statement across the boards about the quality of indie vs traditionally published books, I’m just saying that I see weak writing more often in indie-published books than traditionally published ones—-meaning, when it comes to traditional publishing, the gatekeepers are more stringent in these areas. Maybe they’re antiquated in their ideas of quality and are out of touch with the reader. But the fact is that they do hold the keys. Anyone wanting to go the traditional route to publishing will need to follow those rules if they want to play the game.

      It’s also entirely possible that some submissions are rejected “because of the flashbacks” when the problem isn’t the fact that the flashbacks are there; the problem is the way they’ve been written. Like any other element of writing, if they’re written poorly (they go on too long, there are too many of them, they’re unnecessary, etc.), the book may be rejected “because of the flashbacks” when the flashbacks themselves aren’t the problem; the problem is how they’re conveyed. My two cents.

      • Mark Marderosian says:

        This thread is great, with helpful comments. I think what concerned me was the immediate, “Flashbacks. Can’t have those” or “Prologue? Out of style” shut downs without even considering the effectiveness of their use in this specific instance. As Becca mentions, it should depend on how well they’re being done and to what extent.
        (The comment about prologues really threw me. I realize, of course, they’re a different medium but I’m hard-pressed to think of a single Marvel movie that doesn’t start with not only a prologue, but a prologue that’s also a flashback. “Ant Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” as examples, especially the former. It set an instant tone for why the Michael Douglas character was so bitter moving forward).

      • JOHN T. SHEA says:

        True, Becca. Writing well may gather many readers. Writing even better may gather even more.

  14. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    The flashback has fallen into disfavor with today’s readers? Has it? How would one know that?

    Flashbacks certainly seem to have fallen into disfavor with publishing professionals who express an opinion on the matter, and we must acknowledge and respect that fact as writers. As readers is a different matter. Flashbacks have never bothered me as a reader. Like most such ‘taboos’ I don’t mind what the writer does as long as he/she does it well. As a reader, I take flashbacks as integral parts of the story, told out of chronological order.

    Sprinkling little flashbacks through dialogue works too, though they may have to make up in frequency what they lack in length, slowing or stopping the plot each time. The other danger with dialogue flashbacks is what SF writers call the ‘As You Know, Bob’ syndrome where the dialogue gets very contrived to accommodate the backstory. But, like anything, dialogue flashbacks are fine when done well.

  15. Great post, Jerry. Backstory is most powerful when it comes with a solid hook, and delivery through dialogue like your example here is exactly that. It can be so tempting to “explain” backstory, but breadcrumbs are SO much more effective, and delivered through dialogue, a natural act. It also had the benefit of showing a relationship – these two parties have a shared history, they know things others may not know. And as readers, what we don’t know always fascinates us, and we become even more invested int he situation because there’s now a puzzle to solve. 🙂

  16. Learned the simplicity of your method. Thanks so much.

  17. Thanks for this – I agree totally that backstory comes out best in organic dialogue, although I do find myself writing Exposition! in the margins when I edit. How do you make sure your dialogue doesn’t just turn into a quotation bound flashback?

    Great example from the Magnificent 7!

    • I remind myself, Keith, that dialogue must be between characters, not directed at the reader as an information dump. It’s not easy, but no one ever promised writing would be. 🙂

  18. Mark Marderosian says:

    Great article, especially that Magnificent Seven quote. But I fear that I’m doomed. My manuscript is 5% flashbacks showing the couple’s happier times and how previous events shaped their present miserable state. I’ve honestly tried examining it to make sure it’s not halting the plot and it doesn’t seem to be doing so. Plus in the context of their non-communication with each other, I hesitate to have a character suddenly say, “Remember when you used to make love to me?” as opposed to having him stop at a field and see an invisible trial of clothes that he and his wife had discarded in an previous moment of passion.
    So what to do? Two gatekeepers saw the flashbacks and said, “Can’t have those. Out of style.” FIVE percent of the words in the book! Six impartial beta readers loved book and didn’t mention it except for the one that mentioned liking the contrast.

    • julie says:

      I’m not a huge fan of the flashback, however I believe sometimes it just works. My editor pushed me to SHOW my MC’s emotional wound in action, so I flashed back to her father’s funeral to demonstrate her anxiety around her family. It turned out to be a really good chapter! Then one beta reader said weave the info in…. another said the chapter worked great. Too many voices sometimes. Also depends on your audience. The average reader doesn’t mind flashbacks. Have you read “Little Fires Everywhere” ? Loaded with flashbacks that work beautifully!

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