Learning to handle backstory correctly is vital. Some agents and editors talk about it as the element that shows an author is either a competent professional or still in the “learning” stage. Consequently, I’d like to take a closer look at how to weave backstory into fiction using dialogue and internal monologue.
By way of review, backstory delivered in dialogue (or via any other technique) must first be necessary to the story at that particular point, and not a moment sooner. Second, it must contribute to present conflict.
While I believe those points to be true, I don’t believe they show a writer exactly how backstory should fit into dialogue, so I’m backtracking a bit today to give a few basics.Backstory must be a fitting topic of conversation for the characters in their present circumstances. In the middle of a battle, for example, asking a buddy if he’s ever been horseback riding wouldn’t fit.
Now if two bandits were looking for a way to escape a police sweep and spotted a couple horses in a pasture up ahead, one asking the other about his past experience with horses would be natural.
Second, backstory must add information that the characters don’t already know. It’s tempting to use the “gentle reminder” as a way of conveying backstory, but experienced novelists resist. Here’s an example of “reminder speech.”
“You remember, Jack. We were just kids when Uncle Sal moved in with us for a summer, and that’s when the trouble started.”
Such a reminder nudge happens in real life, but in fiction it almost always comes across as the author talking to the reader rather than the speaker talking to Jack.
Third, the dialogue needs to be worded in the characters’ voices, delivered with the emotion appropriate for the moment. If a character speaks in short sentences or fragments, then the backstory needs to be delivered in the same way.
If the character uses particular jargon, whether regional or job oriented, those words should come into play when appropriate. The main thing is, the characters should sound like individuals. They shouldn’t all sound like the author. And when they deliver lines of backstory, the same must be true.
Fourth, the backstory should be part of a give-and-take conversation, not one lengthy speech. In real life, people rarely string together substantial chunks of information. We tend to interrupt each other, to ask questions, even to move to tangential topics rather than steering a straight course. In other words, the conversation needs to develop organically.
Lastly, appropriate internal monologue — character thoughts — can be interspersed throughout the conversation to give added snippets of backstory.
Below is an example of backstory delivered through dialogue and some internal monologue, taken from HUNTED, the first book in the fantasy The Lore of Efrathah (a story I know well enough to navigate quickly to backstory. 😉 )
Here’s the set up for this scene: Jim has fallen into a parallel world. Among the exiles who found him in a system of tunnels is a young woman he’s attracted to. However, he anticipates returning to his world as soon as possible, so is trying to resist the attraction. Nevertheless, after a meeting, he stays behind to apologize to Elisá (pronounced l-e-SA) for what transpired in an earlier encounter.
Elisá stared up into his eyes as if searching for something she couldn’t find. “Of course. Friends forgive each other such things. You are my friend, are you not?”
“Yes, absolutely! It’s just that, in my world, friends aren’t always that … sure of each other.”
As she stepped toward the exit, Jim took her elbow to guide her into the maze of tunnels.
“Your world sounds complicated.” She pointed the way, and together they sauntered toward the central cavern.
“It’s probably just me. I wish I had friends that I felt sure of, but most of the people I spend time with just want a piece of me.”
Elisá glanced up at him from the corner of her large chocolaty eyes. “A piece of you!”
He chuckled softly. “Doesn’t make much sense, I guess. Back home athletes are looked up to. So lots of people want to get our autograph, have their picture taken with us, that sort of thing. And we’re paid well, so people we know have ‘suggestions’ for how we should spend our money. It’s hard to tell if any of them are really friends.”
She shook her head the same way Jim’s sister had in high school when she didn’t approve of someone he was hooking up with.
His sister. He needed to remember to treat Elisá like his sister.
“But your family must be different,” she said.
“I have great parents. I just don’t spend a lot of time with them, though I want that to change.”
“Anyone else you can be sure of?”
“Kyle — he’s my oldest brother. My sister Karen. I used to think I could count on my other brother Eddie, too.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain how the conversation had stalled on him. “What about you? Are you close to your family?”
The scene continues, then, with some of Elisá’s backstory.
How well do you think this segment succeeded, based on the tips outlined above? Can you see places in your story where you can deliver backstory through dialogue? Were these tips helpful in showing you ways to make that dialogue natural and organic?