How to work with backstory

Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,
Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,

Do you know how to work with backstory?

There is no shortage of how-to articles on writing on the internet, not least of all material on this website; there are articles on the inciting incident, turning points, on character arcs, dialogue and a multitude of other narrative elements. 

And this is all to the good. 

But there are some subtle aspects of the subject that are not as often discussed, such as how much exposition or backstory to reveal, and when to reveal it. 

The Whodunit, for one, can’t succeed without mastery over this element, but truthfully, most stories deploy the technique, since most stories withhold information from the backstory to intrigue and surprise. 

The question hence arises, when, where, and how much information to reveal or withhold?

“The more knowledgeable you are about story structure the more easily you’ll work with backstory – the art of when, where and how to best reveal background information.”

Enter the three act structure. Knowing that the first act’s task is to introduce the world and its characters, to create a ripple in the status quo and to state the goal—the first few pages that include inciting incident and the first turning point are good places to slip in nuggets of backstory. Ditto for the second act’s midpoint and second turning point, and the third act’s climax and resolution.

Information, at these junctures, may be leaked through action, direct dialogue, or subtext. 

When, in Unforgiven, one of the deputies doubts Little Bill Daggett’s courage, another deputy quips (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Little Bill scared? Little Bill grew up in (the mean streets of) Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.” 

The dialogue is laconic, befitting men of action. Nevertheless,  it does leak enough backstory to reveal just how tough an opponent Little Bill is going to be for William Munny.

Earlier in the story, at the inciting incident, the Schofield Kid rides into Munny’s pig farm to ask him join him on a job to kill two cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He asks if Munny is the same William Munny who killed so many people, including women and children, in the past. Munny simply replies, “I guess so.” The scene is understated and rather humorous, playing on the Kid’s naive awe for Munny’s ‘achievements’. It nonetheless gives us important background information about Manny’s past as a ruthless killer.

Additionally, Munny’s constant chatter about how his wife helped him abandon his wicked ways is an adroit way of sneaking in backstory. For example, he tells his children how, at one time, he might have whipped and cursed a horse for throwing him off, then later tells his old friend Ned that he ‘ain’t like that no more’.

The point is that the writer has to place nuggets of backstory at appropriate moments, preferably around the structural pivots, and even then, only as many as necessary to serve the drama.

Exercise: Consider a story you have written. Are there sections that leave you confused, rather than intrigued? Could this be solved by introducing more backstory elements? If so, tuck in only as much new information as is necessary through subtext, skilful dialogue or telling action. Try to locate it inside or close to one or more structural beats (discussed on this site). Use character emotion in the scene to distract the reader away from this slight-of-hand.

Summary

Sneak in just enough exposition to keep the reader or audience hungry to know more. Tucking in information around the structural beats and filtering it through the psychology of a character helps to keep the information unobtrusive.

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