5 Ways to Reveal Backstory When Writing A Novel

backstory pictureFor my latest WIP I spent nearly six months designing a rich backstory complete with six habitable planets, four alien races, culture, pre-history, flora, fauna, and loads of other details that may never make it onto the page in any of the several novels I will write in this series.

However, now that I’ve finished the first chapter of the first novel, I found that trying to develop an engaging plot was a chore without spilling my guts about all of the rich culture and environments I had created.  This caused me to come up with some hard and fast rules for myself which would allow me to write freely in the environment without spending pages and pages describing these strange and wondrous places.

  1. In Medias Res – This means “in the middle of the action” and is probably a good place to start if you have a lot of backstory.  This is how my novel begins, the main character sitting at an outdoor cafe minding his own business, rather trying to escape the duties of his boring job.  An example of this is in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Mortimer, a story that begins in the middle of a couple having lunch, but then throughout the course of the story we discover the backstory that Mortimer is a huge coward (even though I would not face off against a wounded lion, either).  You don’t have to reveal any of the backstory if you don’t want to, but jumping in right at the middle of the action is usually a good place to begin.
  2. Dialogue – The best way to find out about some important backstory is also dialogue, but it has its drawbacks as well.  The positive effects of using dialogue to reveal important plot points from before the story began is that it comes out more naturally than if a narrator spends pages and pages to describe it to the reader.  It also is a way to humanize the backstory if it is clunky and boring.  Long speeches are usually boring unless there is action going on to break up the speech.  Another interesting way to do this is for the character revealing the backstory to be biased for or against the events they describe.  One definite drawback to dialogue is that it is limited by the knowledge of the character speaking.
  3. Sprinkling – The way I’m tackling all of this backstory in my latest WIP is that I’m sprinkling it in here and there throughout the narrative.  A character might mention a past battle in a short “for instance”, a building might be described and there might be a character who remembers the location’s historical significance, or there might be an event that reminds the character of something in their past.  This is the most artful way to do it, in my humble opinion, but it is also the most difficult.  Writers who do this are working hardest at their art.
  4. Flashback – One television program that was excellent at this was Lost.  We would see the backstory of every character on the island through flashbacks to their past lives…probably their lives when they were not dead (spoiler alert…oops).  Don’t do too many flashbacks.  Right now Arrow is working with this method of telling the backstory of Oliver Queen, but it sometimes becomes ungainly if it is done too much.
  5. Don’t Mention It – The huge backstory I wrote for This Broken Earth is barely mentioned at all.  I mention in passing the disease that wiped out 2/3 of the populace (Volos), and one could see from the setting that things had taken a terrible turn for the worst economically, as well as governmentally, but I didn’t really need to go into so much detail.  In order to pull this off, a writer needs to “live” in that setting inside their mind as they are writing.  This takes much effort but can lead to a very rewarding product.  This Broken Earth is still my most popular book, selling a few copies a week over all the other books I’ve written.

What are some methods that you use to reveal backstory in your novels?  Write about them in the comments below.  Don’t take too long, however.  You have a novel to write, after all…and so do I.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “5 Ways to Reveal Backstory When Writing A Novel

  1. This is really helpful and thank you for posting it!
    I am also experiencing the same trouble with the back story to my own novel series. This is because I created my own world for the setting, so the details and back info are enormous!
    I think that the 2nd and 3rd would work wonders for me! Plus, this has opened up more doors of how to get across the plots-within-plots which can sometimes be tricky to convey to the reader.

  2. Reblogged this on Pukah Works and commented:
    Well said, and definitely something to keep in mind.

    Thanks for the post, now I just have to figure out how to implement most of the methods. Dialogue is not my strongest suit – but that seems to be the most popular way of introducing backstory.

  3. Great breakdown of backstory types! I’m a fan of all of the above. I don’t usually write flashbacks myself, but I do very much enjoy reading / watching them when they’re done well.

    I read so many drafts were writers excited about their backstory dump in giant blocks of past exposition. It’s amazing how quickly that can stall a story’s narrative where the techniques you mention here can take that same info and move the story forward while simultaneously explaining the past.

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