More Tips for How to Present Backstory

This article originally appeared on Suite101.

Additional Tricks to Make a Character’s Past History Compelling

Here are some more subtle ways to present exposition without obviously telling the reader.

The previous article on backstory mentioned this:

The key to presenting backstory in a way that is interesting to a reader boils down to one piece of advice: Make the reader want to know the information.

Aside from the points in that article, there are also some other more subtle ways to accomplish this.

Connect Information to Action

This is a case of using both "showing" and "telling" in order to present backstory.

The writer can first "show," in action, a character's personality, trait, or proclivity. For example, show Joe's strange aversion to the barn in a few short paragraphs of action and dialogue.

This action will trigger an emotional reaction in the reader. Make the reader feel Joe's fear and dread as he stares into the dark barn doorway.

This emotional reaction will, in turn, stimulate to reader to want to know more about the character. He will wonder why Joe, a farmer's son, wants to avoid the barn.

At that point, the reader will be dying to know a bit about the character's backstory, which can be "told" in narrative or dialogue.

However, don't dump all the info at once. It's usually more effective to dole the backstory out in bits and pieces to keep the reader wanting more.

Make the Character Notice Details

If the character notices certain details or events that a normal person would not notice, this enables the reader to notice the same highlighted details and events.

This form of "showing" points out things that will nudge the reader to understand hints of backstory.

For example, Sally notices a Joe flinching when he looks at the barn. Sally noticing Joe's reaction makes the reader notice Joe's reaction. It creates curiosity—what's up with the barn? The reader is enticed to understand more. Sally might ask Patricia about Joe and the barn, which would enable the reader to find out, too.

Utilize Point of View to Increase Emotion

If a scene is written from a point of view character who responds emotionally and viscerally to a stimulus, it increases the emotional intensity of the scene. The reader becomes more emotionally involved with the character.

In the example above with Joe, you can write it so that the reader really feels and experiences Joe's fear and dread, maybe reads snatches of panicked thought. It emotionally involves the reader in Joe's backstory, making the reader need to know about the barn.

Make Characters Reticent

Don't have a character talk about something already known to the other character, or which the character wouldn't normally talk about. This is "telling" the reader information in the guise of stilted dialogue.

Joe would not walk past the barn and mention to Sally, "I think my father killed my mother in the barn, and I've been so afraid of it that I haven't been able to walk inside ever since." Dialogue like this can be too obvious, and loose-lipped characters are not always likable.

Joe would also not tell his brother, "As you know, our mother disappeared years ago and I have told you before that I always thought our father killed her in the barn." Again, too obvious and rather silly-sounding.

People are naturally a bit reticent—so make your characters that way, too. As a writer, be stingy in how you dole out information. It will create mystery for the story and curiosity in your reader, who will keep reading to find out more.