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How to Weave in Backstory

Weaving in Backstory


It’s one of the most difficult parts of writing to get right.

If backstory isn’t revealed through a mixture of narrative, dialogue, memory, and possibly flashbacks, it can easily feel like an info dump.


4 Ways of Revealing Backstory


1. Narrative

2. Dialogue

3. Memory

4. Flashback


1. Narrative – Telling the reader.

Narrative backstory is revealed through the narrator telling the reader what has happened in the past.

This is typically how we receive information in novels, but it can become overwhelming when entire paragraphs are filled with descriptions about what the character is or was like.


When using narrative, keep it short and move on.


Ex. Two sentences of backstory and back into the current story.


When Sal was eleven, a doctor told him he wouldn’t grow anymore. Now, at 32, he was stuck at 4’10”, a small man with big dreams. He jumped up onto the lowest step of the trolley with his briefcase holding the plans for his latest invention.


2. Dialogue – What the characters say to each other.

Dialogue is a great way to reveal things to your reader. Having characters discuss the past or ask questions is a natural way to show what has happened.


Ex. Two lines.

“Weren’t you told you wouldn’t grow anymore when you were only eleven?”

“That was 21 years ago. I might be 4’10”, but I’ve got big dreams. Speaking of, check out my new invention.”


3. Memory – Recalling past events through the character while in the present.

Using the character’s memory keeps the reader in the present while learning about the character’s past. This is not a flashback. The difference between a flashback and a memory is that flashbacks are actually scenes from the past, whereas memories stay in the present.


Ex. Dialogue triggers the memory.

“When were you told?” Andrew asked.

“I was eleven.” His expression turned melancholy. Although it had been 21 years ago, he could remember the day in exquisite detail. He was sitting on the table in a green paper gown, his father nervously bouncing his leg in the chair next to him. Neither expected the doctor to say he would never grow up. His dad’s leg stilled, and Sal’s jaw dropped. Back then, it felt like a disaster, almost like a terminal diagnosis. Nothing could have convinced him he would have such big dreams, but only stand at 4’ 10”.

He straightened his spine. “I’ve got something I want to show you. It’s a new invention.”


4. Flashback – Revisiting as if it’s happening now.

With flashbacks, we go back in time and replay events. We need to set it up similarly to the memory, but then we switch timeframes for the whole scene.

When we want the scene to end, something needs to bring the character back to the present.


Ex. Present, flashback scene, jarring incident.


“When were you told?” Andrew asked.


“I was eleven.” Although it had been 21 years ago, Sal could remember the day in exquisite detail.


Sitting on the table in a green paper gown, his father nervously bouncing his leg in the chair next to him, a graying doctor in a white coat put the clipboard on the desk and turned the stool to face them. He was so tall his knees were higher than the stool. “I’m afraid it’s bad news.” He took a deep breath. “Sal, your growth plates have stopped moving. There’s no more room for them to grow.”


Sal stared at the doctor, waiting for him to go on.


“You won’t get any taller,” he said, tilting his head. “You’ll never grow up.”


Tears escaped from Sal’s eyes, and his dad jumped up. Putting his arms around him, he hugged him tight. “It’s going to be ok. You can still do whatever you want in life.”


Sal held on but shook his head. “I can’t play basketball. I can’t be a firefighter. I won’t ever get to ride the Daemon Sled.”


“…al! Sal!” Andrew shook Sal’s shoulder, bringing him back to the here and now. “You ok?”


All of these are great ways to inform your reader of your character’s backstories. Mixing them together and keeping them short will encourage your readers to keep reading because you are only giving them bits of information at a time.


Revealing bits at a time leads to more or unanswered questions. And the more questions your reader has, the more likely they are to keep going.


Weaving Backstory by Using the 4 Techniques


When Sal was eleven, a doctor told him he wouldn’t grow anymore. Now, at 32, he was stuck at 4’10”, a small man with big dreams. (Narrative) He jumped up onto the lowest step of the trolley with his briefcase holding the plans for his latest invention. (Present)


A trip on the trolley always made him feel nostalgic, but the one he took today went past his old home. (Narrative) When he saw the blue house with white shutters, he recalled playing on the front porch with his model fire engine, making truck noises, shouting commands to the little firemen. (Memory)


It all went by too quickly, his childhood and the trolly ride. Soon, he arrived at his stop and hopped off. Down on street level, he strode to the tallest glass and metal building in the city. The doorman tipped his hat and waved him through.


He stepped up to the front desk, which came up to his chest (Narrative), and said, “I’m here to see Andrew Speck. I have an appointment at ten.” (Dialogue) The man behind the counter lifted his head up, then down to meet Sal’s eyes. (Narrative)


“Name.”


“Sal Jackson. We’re old friends, but I have something important to show him today.”


“Sal Jackson,” the receptionist leaning forward a bit. Probably gawking at all of Sal’s 4’10” body. (Narrative)


“Yep. You’re right here. Go on up. I’ll let him know you’re short—I mean, you’ll be there shortly.” The man flushed.


“Right,” Sal said, and headed to the elevator. He knew the man was watching him the whole time.


When he stepped onto the 20th floor, Andrew was there to meet him. “Welcome to Speck, Inc.” He chuckled. “I haven’t seen you since you we were kids. We were what, 12?” he asked as they walked down the hallway.


Sal shifted his bag. “About that age.” He knew exactly how old they were, 11. The last day they spoke was the day he was told he wouldn’t grow anymore. He would never forget that day at the doctor’s office. (Dialogue and Narrative—set up for flashback)


(Flashback) Sitting on the table in a green paper gown, his father nervously bouncing his leg in the chair next to him, a graying doctor in a white coat put the clipboard on the desk and turned the stool to face them. He was so tall his knees were higher than the stool. “I’m afraid it’s bad news.” He took a deep breath. “Sal, your growth plates have stopped moving. There’s no more room for them to grow.”


Sal stared at the doctor, waiting for him to go on.


“You won’t get any taller,” he said, tilting his head. “You’ll never grow up.”


Tears escaped from Sal’s eyes, and his dad jumped up. Putting his arms around him, he hugged him tight. “It’s going to be ok. You can still do whatever you want in life.”


Sal held on but shook his head. “I can’t play basketball. I can’t be a firefighter. I won’t ever get to ride the Daemon Sled.”


(Jarring Event) “…al! Sal!” Sal felt Andrew shaking his shoulder, bringing him back to the here and now. “You ok?”


“Yeah. Yeah. Seeing you just brought back memories.” He looked up at him as he crossed the threshold to Andrew’s office. He could tell his height was causing the man’s mind to swirl with questions. (Narrative) “It’s good to see you.”


Obviously, the scene continues.


While you may have not enjoyed reading the same flashback scene—possibly skipped over it—but I think the example is a good mixture of the four ways to reveal backstory and not bore the reader.


I hope you enjoyed this post.


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