Style,  Writing

How to Handle Backstory in Fiction

Showing and Telling Made Easy: episode four

You. Must. Cut. Your. Backstory.

How many times have you heard this? Plenty, I bet. Along with “show, don’t tell”, it’s one of the first things a writer learns. But it can be difficult to know how to handle backstory.

You’re probably thinking that if you cut your character’s backstory, the reader won’t understand why your character behaves in a certain way and they’ll probably end up very confused.

And you’d be right!

But problems arise when you don’t know how to handle backstory. New writers tend to present it to the reader using exposition, one of those pesky writing tools we need to learn to use effectively or risk disengaging our readers. If you haven’t already, you might like to take a look at 5 Tools that Show and Tell in Fiction so that you understand what I mean by “writing tools”.

Hands up if the opening of your first manuscript consisted—or indeed, consists—of pages and pages of backstory. I was guilty as a new writer!

So what’s the answer?

It’s simple.

DO NOT CUT YOUR BACKSTORY.

INSTEAD, REMOVE EXCESSIVE EXPOSITION!

Rather than present the reader with pages and pages of backstory, you need to:

Weave in your backstory WHEN IT IS RELEVANT by using a mix of writing tools that show and tell—DO NOT RELY ON EXPOSITION!

It’s time to get creative again, people!

creative writing

Using a mix of writing tools will allow you to reveal a character’s backstory without long passages of exposition.

Below, I’ve shared examples from a short story I wrote called His Luminous Gemstone (available for FREE to subscribers of my author newsletter—subscribe here). The backstory of my character, Nathaniel, is mostly revealed using writing tools other than exposition. I’ve noted the writing tools used in each example, so you can see exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate.

How to handle backstory using action

Excerpt from His Luminous Gemstone:

Nodding his thanks to the barkeep, he turned back to the crowd, his eyes locking on her with practised ease [action].

  • Writing tool used: action
  • Backstory revealed: Nathaniel’s “eyes locking on her with practised ease” shows he knows this woman and has admired her for some time
  • Moment of relevance: as he seeks her out in the crowd
  • Reader engagement: gets the reader asking questions—Who is she? How are they connected?

How to handle backstory using thought

Excerpt from His Luminous Gemstone:

Arriving on the outskirts of the heaving mass of bodies, his assistant appeared before him, blocking his path [action].

‘Nathaniel, it’s time.’ [dialogue] She held up her illuminated phone screen as evidence, pausing only a moment before rushing off to carry out the next item on her to-do list [action].

He sighed [action]. If only he hadn’t taken so long to get his act together [thought].

  • Writing tool used: thought
  • Moment of relevance: as his attempt to approach the woman on the dance floor is interrupted by his assistant
  • Backstory revealed: Nathaniel’s annoyance at having “taken so long to get his act together” reveals he has been trying to pluck up the courage to approach the mystery woman for some time
  • Reader engagement: on the cusp of achieving his goal, he hits an obstacle—the reader will want to discover whether he eventually manages to achieve this goal 

How to handle backstory using dialogue

Excerpt from His Luminous Gemstone:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, we now come to the formal part of the evening. Please join me in welcoming the CEO of the Swan River Hospital Foundation, Mr Nathaniel Kamber!’ [dialogue]

  • Writing tool used: dialogue
  • Backstory revealed: Nathaniel is the CEO of a hospital foundation
  • Moment of relevance: the crowd is attending a ball hosted by his foundation and he is about to address everyone in his capacity as CEO
  • Reader engagement: up until Nathaniel’s introduction, the reader had no idea of his occupation—finding out as he’s about to address the crowd garners interest in what he is about to say

How to handle backstory using description

Excerpt from His Luminous Gemstone:

The stranger pulled her close and kissed her temple before joining in the applause [action]. She barely noticed [action], as if the man’s actions were to be expected, so natural her acknowledgement wasn’t necessary [description].

Despair took hold of him, extinguishing the hope he’d so carefully managed to cultivate [description].

  • Narrative mode used: description
  • Backstory revealed: despairing at seeing his mystery woman with another man, the reader learns Nathaniel had been building his hopes up over time
  • Moment of relevance: as he feels all hope is lost
  • Reader engagement: knowing what is at stake for Nathaniel—that he has been pining away for this woman for some time—the reader fully commits to the story, wanting him to succeed all the more

From the four examples above—using action, dialogue, thought and description—we learned plenty about Nathaniel’s backstory, all without having to read an extensive passage of exposition. His backstory was shown.

But that doesn’t mean exposition can’t be used. If there is no other way to communicate part of your character’s backstory to the reader, then by all means, use exposition. It just needs to be …

simple exposition short and concise

SHORT. CONCISE. RELEVANT.

Make it your mantra, people!

Let me show you an example …

Use exposition only when necessary

In the beginning of the story, the reader’s attention is brought to a circle of tiger’s eye beads on Nathaniel’s wrist. They are significant to the story and Nathaniel’s motivation, and the reader needs to understand this significance. The passage below shows how Nathaniel’s backstory links to his goal.

Excerpt from His Luminous Gemstone:

He paused, his hand again moving instinctively to his mother’s talisman [action]. She had passed the tiger’s eye beads to him as she lay dying, had told him they would keep him focused on whatever he wanted to achieve in life—his deepest desires. Even as an eleven-year-old, he had understood the significance. She was giving him hope. Instilling in him a dedication and determination to follow his dreams and succeed [exposition].

And he had done just that—in all areas of his life except one [exposition].

  • Writing tool used: exposition
  • Backstory revealed: explicitly stated as above—no reader interpretation necessary (see how I’m telling!)
  • Moment of relevance: during his speech when it becomes absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the significance of the beads—they have helped him to achieve professional success
  • Reader engagement: the reader will deduce that the one area of Nathaniel’s life he is yet to succeed at must involve his mystery woman, and knowing how the tiger’s eye keeps him focused on his deepest desires, the reader anticipates he will ultimately achieve his goal

So there we have it: examples of how to show and not tell your character’s backstory unless it is absolutely necessary.

Let’s recap …

As we come to the end of episode four of this five-part blog series, Showing and Telling Made Easy, it’s important we re-cap everything covered so far:

And now that you’ve finished episode four, you also know how to handle backstory by weaving it into your manuscript when it is relevant using a mix of writing tools.

Are you excited? I’m excited!

Are you still wondering whether you’ve use a good balance of writing tools to show and tell in your manuscript? Or perhaps you want to know if you’ve managed to weave in your backstory sufficiently. If this sounds like you, be sure to join me for episode five of Showing and Telling Made EasyShowing or Telling? A strategy for writers.

Further reading: Writer’s Digest | How to Weave Backstory Seamlessly Into Your Novel

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Thanks for reading,

Libby M Iriks is the commissioning editor of romance at Vulpine Press and offers freelance fiction editing services at Perfect Pear Editing and Proofreading. Libby is also an author of contemporary small-town romance where the chemistry sizzles and love is forever. Learn more about her writing at libbymiriks.com.

2 Comments

  • Rania

    I recently started reading a book that was 50% backstory in the first two chapters. It was incredibly boring and I gave up on the book by the third chapter. It’s a hard lesson to learn as a new author, but such a necessary one. Great article to spread the word on cutting backstory!

    • Libby M Iriks

      Rania, thanks for sharing your experience! It’s the perfect example of what writers risk by publishing before they’ve mastered the basics. Readers will give up on books that don’t engage them. Knowing how to show and when to tell will give writers a much better chance of maintaining reader engagement.

      Thanks for reading!

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