4 Ways To Handle Backstory by Andrea Lundgren


– I highly recommend this blog.Backstory through Narrator. This works in both first person and omniscient third person stories, where someone is clearly telling the story. Instead of showing the basics of the backstory–the age, history, demeanor, and world of the story–the narrator tells it to us directly.

Pros: Using a narrator or character to deliver the exposition is quick and uncomplicated, and it certainly gets the job done. And it is something that naturally occurs. Stories like the traditional “once upon a time” start out with backstory, giving us the situation the opens the plot without any fuss or bother.

Cons: This method is subject to the same criticisms of “show, don’t tell,” and even authors who use it will do so sparingly. Tolkien, for example, uses this in The Hobbit to explain what hobbits are like, as a people, but when it comes to Bilbo or Gandalf, he lets the action show us what the characters are like.

  • Backstory through Flashback. This allows a reader to go straight to the moment of the backstory, in the first place. Rather than having to tell us “the main character lost his or her parents to a fire” we can experience the agony and sorrow of it all, firsthand. Whether done in a prologue or a true flashback, it takes the reader back in time to an earlier part of the world or character’s life.

Pros: This is the ultimate method of “show, not tell” where exposition is concerned, as nothing is summarized or retold.

Cons: Because it happened in the past, it can break up the flow of the narration and get confusing, and prologues can often feel like cheating, giving us information you could otherwise deliver in the current timeline by another method.

  • Backstory through Dialogue. This was used a great deal in plays in the 18th century. Two maids would come out on stage and clean, discussing the woes of their masters and mistresses and then disappear so the real main characters could take center stage. Nowadays, you can still find this method used when one character talks to another character about something that is going on in their lives: an upcoming meeting, a rite-of-passage test, or a visit from someone. This is especially useful when something is going to happen that deviates from the normal.



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