Writing Backstory Through Dialogue

By Becca Puglisi

Source: Writers Helping Writers

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.

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