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How to present back story?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Darkfantasy, May 17, 2014.

  1. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    Hi, I'm writing a contemporary Fantasy/mystery about someone who comes to our world from another land and the back story to the character is important to the novel. But the back story is things that happened in the other land. The back story is important to understand the motives of this character and important to the plot.

    I'm new to writing and was just wondering what ways could I present the back story without affecting the flow of the story.
    I was thinking of presenting it as a mixture of conversation between characters, flash-backs and investigation (by another character). Would that be good?
    I was wondering what the best way is to write a flashback scene? There isn't tons of back story, but I was a bit concerned about setting some scenes back in the "Fantasy" world this character comes from, though it might give more insight into her personality.

    Just wanted some opinions on this.

    Thank you for answering
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    There are many ways to present back story. For me, the simplest is to dribble it in as the story progresses. The trick is to find the right trigger to spin the narrative down that road. A trigger can be something internal, what a character is feeling, and something external, something that triggers one of the character's senses.

    For example, if you want to drop in that a character as a kid used to play tag with a girl named Dorthy, you need to find something that triggers that memory, so maybe you would write something like this.

    This affects the way you plan out your scenes. When you need to reveal information like back story, you have to plan out the scene so the situation and triggers within it will allow you to reveal the information naturally. It's not hard, but it requires thinking.

    I would suggest picking up one of your favorite books and study a few pages or even a chapter. I'm sure you'll find many more examples of what I'm talking about and ones that are way better than what I gave.
    Darkfantasy likes this.
  3. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    One of the best ways to learn how to do it is to read and study how other writers have successfully included necessary backstory into the storyline, and how it is accomplished also varies depending on the POV used.

    I would recommend making a list of the elements from the past (other world) that are a priority to be included, and maybe when, within the storyline, they need to be included--before a certain event occurs, for example.

    As was said, a trigger, and definitely within the context of the current storyline is best. Flashbacks can work, depending on the POV, but too many or too long of flash backs, and especially awkwardly 'inserted' ones can be a concern.

    Sometimes conversations between characters, when the character being talked about isn't there, can be effective.

    Good luck as you move forward.
    Darkfantasy likes this.
  4. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

    One way I've found useful is a dream of a past event that haunts the protagonist. This could be a good memory or a bad one - and it allows you to say as much or as little as you like of the events prior to the story while showing the protagonists past life in context.

    The dream doesn't need to be a proper retelling - in my Jangada saga I had a character's dream start out familiar and comforting, only for it to diverge from what happened towards the end so that a long lost character could say something that they would have said had they still been around.

    This wasn't intended as a ghostly visitiation (though it could have been) it was intended as a rationalization of the protagonist's subconcious extracting information from current events and presenting/inventing an answer based on a form of intuition.
    Darkfantasy likes this.
  5. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    Suggest looking at Casablanca, how they've shown Rick and Ilsa when they were together in Paris.
    Black Dragon and Darkfantasy like this.
  6. Addison

    Addison Auror

    Flashbacks are always tricky. You need to find a way to show that the character's mind is drifting or the setting is changing. Another way I've found is by dreams, nightmares or life-flashing-before-their-eyes sort of thing. Like your dimension hopping character could suffer a severe wound and, in his head, relives a moment. If you want that moment to be shared with the other characters then have him talk in his sleep or walk around in a concussion or fever affected mind.
    Darkfantasy likes this.
  7. ACSmyth

    ACSmyth Minstrel

    Flashbacks/dreams can take you into dangerous territory. They can work, or they can end up as disguised info-dumps. As, indeed, can conversations, when you get into "As you know, Jim" stuff.

    One writing course I did, the person running it suggested writing down all the stuff you wanted people to know about back story. Write it out, one thing per line, on a sheet of paper. Then cut the paper into strips. Every now and then, take ONE strip and work it into the scene naturally.

    So, the character (amongst other things) used to live in a particular country and that's one of the things on one of your strips.

    "On his way to the castle, X walked through the spice market. Aromas of cinnamon and cumin and chilli hit him, and for a moment he was back in [country name]. His mouth watered for a taste of the spicy meats he had loved during his three years there."

    And then resist the temptation to go any further and give us a history of his time wherever it was. That's enough for now. You can pick up another strip another time, and tell us why he was there, if you must. You may find that you actually don't need to tell us what's on all the strips, but you just want to, because you've given this guy such a cool backstory and you want to share it with us. Do we need to know it all at once/at all?

    I've used this strips of paper technique more than once, and it really does work.
    Darkfantasy likes this.
  8. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    No offense meant, but this is such a cliche it makes me shudder just to see you write it.
  9. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    Thank you very much to everyone for answering my question. You were all very helpful
  10. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

    Feed it into the story where it does something to show something key about the character, or to give meaning to the action that is happening. Details for the sake of a detail is boring. I find these all over my writing and later have to cut them out.
  11. ink.

    ink. Dreamer

    You don't even need to have your main character relive the memory, depending on the notoriety of the deed or place from which they come from - whatever it is you want to look back on. An immediate example that comes to mind would be (as usual) from GoT, from the get go everyone calls Jaime Lannister 'Kingslayer', we know this pains him from the way he reacts, so we're given a glimpse. Then later on he reveals a little more about it, and a little more after that. I think this is one of the best ways to do, from a multi-perspective, it helps to really add depth to the character's personality, in how they see things differently to everyone else.
    Scribble likes this.
  12. Bansidhe

    Bansidhe Minstrel

    The most effective use of back story I've seen is parceling it out as it pertains to the main events of the story, usually as an additional source of conflict. Flashbacks can also be useful, but in moderation. I would recommend watching the TV show Jericho to see back story done really well.
  13. Sir Kieran

    Sir Kieran Scribe

    I agree that flashbacks/dreams are not the best methods (I included a bunch in my story, and realized afterwards that it interrupted the flow of the story and was not interesting). Instead, I would include tidbits of information here and there, as other users have suggested. If two characters are discussing another character, have them analyze that character according to his/her past. For example:

    Person 1: Barbie does not have the skills or talents to lead that mission.
    Person 2: What makes you say that?
    Person 1: Didn't you hear? The last mission she was in . . . all of her soldiers died. Because she made a mistake.

    I know, pretty bad example. But I hope you see what I mean. People like to read about other people. So reading about two people talking about someone else ingrains the reader in the world, and makes them interested as well. (Someone brought up Jaime Lannister as the Kingslayer; they are spot on. Yes, Jaime occasionally has flashbacks, but they are weaved into the narration, and a new fact is introduced each time the event is referenced. In another scene, he even gives a personal account through dialogue that gives the readers an emotional view on the subject.)

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