Where to hide the time machine: backstory

Skye Taylor has set us this topic:

The Importance of your character’s backstory/history and how to share this with the reader without an info dump that stalls the action.

Skye’s question immediately reminded me of a little essay I wrote in ancient times: the second year of my newsletter, Bobbing Around. It explains how NOT to continue a series.

It would be cheating to stop here, although reading it will tell you all about the topic.

So, OK, how do I as author let you know my character’s past?

As sparingly as possible, and never in one lump. Fiction writing has four tools: action, dialogue, description, and musing. All of these convey information from within the story. So, when it is needed, or some little time before, we dribble in a little backstory through one of these, preferably so it is invisible.

Recently, I’ve had a lot of fun writing short stories for my anthology, REAL Human Nature. Here are a couple of examples from A Different Christmas Tale:

Paddy held Mario up at knifepoint, but the situation has just got resolved.

      His shoulders were now hunched. With my panic gone, I could see him as a person: a weedy little fellow in shabby clothes, but, surprisingly, clean-shaven. Twenty years ago, I could have overpowered him, knife or no, but an eighty-one-year-old like I am is not much for fighting anymore.

This is description (just after high-tension action), sneaking in Mario’s age, and past fighting ability.

Here is backstory in dialogue:

      “Genuine convict stock way back. Guess I’m returnin’ to the family tradition.”
      “Those Irish convicts weren’t criminals but sort of political prisoners.”
      “Howd’ya know?” He looked really interested, not just making conversation.
      “I used to be an English, History and Geography teacher, and my current project is writing my fourth book on Australian history.”

When should a bit of history come? This has two answers.

First, when a surprise revelation has maximal impact. Mike Muntisov’s novel, Court of the Grandchildren, turns on the book’s protagonist’s actions decades ago. We find out what that was exactly when needed: near the very end, through testimony by a person in court. Danger to him increases chapter by chapter, keeping tension going while we wonder why he is persecuted with such enthusiasm. Then, BOOM, between the eyes, there it is.

Second, though, we don’t want a rabbit out of the hat. Another short story from my anthology is Not Coincidence, which is one of my beta readers’ favourites, but since I am submitting it to contests, you’ll need to wait to read it.

Martin wakes up as an octopus. Near the start comes

      How would he get that Chemistry assignment completed on time? And the interview with Professor Croffeldt on Friday? Hell, that’ll affect the rest of my life! And he’d arranged to phone Dad, and with Mom down with COVID, he certainly didn’t want to add to their worries!

We learn what that interview is about near the very end. It would raise a “Huh?” reaction without this seed.

So, there you have it. Please let me know in the comments slot below if I have answered the question to your satisfaction. Then visit the other marvellous Round Robiners:

Connie Vines
A.J. Maguire

Skye Taylor

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Where to hide the time machine: backstory

  1. fionamcgier says:

    You’re right. Backstory should be given organically to the reader, as part of the action of 1 character talking to another. Or a character explaining themselves to another. Never just as a dump.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don Lubov says:

    Thanks for the great advice on backstory.


  3. Skye-writer says:

    Good summary with really helpful examples. Sounds like you’re on the same page I am, less is better, but important stuff gets released as needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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