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?”
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 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?”
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).
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.