Backstory and Exposition: 4 Key Tactics

Image: painting of a man whose face has opened like a door to reveal the child he used to be

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.

Landing your novel opening can be tricky. On the one hand, you need to get the reader sucked into the present moment of the story as it’s unfolding; on the other hand, there’s a lot you need to explain about the past, which is precisely the sort of thing that puts readers to sleep.

This info is generally known as backstory (essential information about the characters’ past) and exposition (essential information about the context of the story). Getting it right is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face with your novel.

When the backstory and exposition is excessive, unnecessary, or too obvious, it makes the reader feel like they’ve been hit over the head, hence the term info dump. Examples of info dumps include the sci-fi novel with paragraphs upon paragraphs on the history of faster-than-light travel in the Goltoggan system, or the literary novel that includes so much complicated backstory on the protagonist’s upbringing that not much happens in the present moment.

But when the backstory and exposition aren’t included at all, or are included too sparingly, the reader tends to (in the words of one of my mentors) “bump into the furniture”: Who are these people? Why are they fighting? Why is this fight such a big deal for this one character in particular? And how exactly is it that her skin is now throwing off purple sparks?

Some writers include less in the way of backstory and exposition, while some writers go for more—a key stylistic choice. But one way or another, if the info is essential to the reader’s understanding of the story, that info must be included. What follows are four key tactics for doing so in a way that won’t lose your reader.

1. That old (effective) rule: Show, don’t tell.

Next time you see a movie, pay attention to the opening scenes: in many cases, these scenes look like they’re the opening of the actual story, but in reality, they’re just there to establish the ground situation, what life is like for the protagonist before the story really starts.

This technique can work well in fiction too, and in many cases it saves you from having to come right out and explain things. This is such an elegant trick that it has its own tagline: “show, don’t tell.” If you plunk your reader down in the middle of a scene at the opening of your novel, you can use that scene to establish backstory and exposition invisibly, via context, dialogue, and specific details.

Flashbacks can serve this purpose as well: they convey backstory and exposition in a way that’s largely invisible. Rather than feeling like the author is explaining things to us, as readers we’re figuring it out for ourselves.

If you struggle with how to reveal the key bits of backstory and exposition in your novel, the simplest trick is to start earlier in the timeframe of the story, and include an opening scene that establishes the ground situation—and, if necessary, use a flashback as well.

2. Show, then tell.

The elegant technique of “show, don’t tell” doesn’t work for all novels, especially speculative ones—or at least it doesn’t work on its own. “Show, don’t tell” is predicated on the reader being able to infer key details about the characters and their world based on their own experience and common knowledge. In speculative stories, that technique tends to break down at some point, because they take place in worlds that differ from our own.

Luckily, there’s an adjacent tactic: “Show then tell.”

For instance, in the example offered above, in which two people are fighting and the epidermis of one of them begins to throw off purple sparks: After a scene like that, your reader won’t find it annoying if you step in with some basic background on this character and her unique relationship to the electromagnetic field, because by doing so, you’ll be answering the reader’s questions rather than hitting them over the head with (what feels like) a whole lot of random info.

If you find yourself struggling with how to convey a complicated bit of backstory or exposition in your novel, see if you can come up with an opening scene that raises serious questions—precisely the questions you want to answer.

3. Present backstory as story.

Is your protagonist’s backstory…a long story? Pretty complicated? And is it absolutely necessary to the story you’re trying to tell? Consider making the backstory a story in and of itself.

For instance, if your novel opens with a character on an epic cross-country road trip, you might start the backstory in Chapter One with how she lost a bet with her bestie and therefore had to go confront an old friend of theirs who’s not returning phone calls. From there, each subsequent chapter, while continuing to roll forward in the present moment, might also pick up the thread of the backstory on that road trip, until you’ve caught up with the story in the present.

Or you might share the protagonist’s backstory the way you would an actual story, with an opening chapter that reads like the story of their life. That’s a riskier technique, largely reliant on the storyteller’s voice, but for the right book, it can work well. For instance, this is what John Irving does in the opening chapter of The Cider House Rules, “The Boy Who Belonged to St. Cloud’s”; Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things also begins this way, with the line “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.”

4. Use backstory as the reveal.

Finally, there’s the trickiest technique of all: Withholding the essential backstory and raising questions about it throughout the story, so that a revelation about the protagonist’s past is given the emotional weight of a secret revealed.

This is essentially what Stephen Chbosky does in The Perks of Being a Wallflower: We know that something in Charlie’s past has led him to retreat into himself and away from others. We know too that he attributes this to the death of a beloved aunt when he was younger—but that explanation doesn’t quite make sense, because his reaction seems disproportionate. Later on, at the story’s climax, we discover that he’s repressed his memories of this aunt having molested him, and that’s the real reason he became so withdrawn.

With this technique, the key is to make sure the story raises questions early on about what happened in the past, then offer clues and hints at regular intervals leading up to the big reveal. It’s a technique that works well when you have a novel that’s in some significant way about the impact of the past on the present, or about how we deal with the aftermath of life’s various traumas—especially when you want to do that without coming off as melodramatic or overstated. By “hiding” the past, you make the reader want to explore it.

This post of mine is the result of many years of wrestling with this issue, both in my own work and that of my clients, so I’d love to know: What have you wrestled with in your own work, in terms of backstory and exposition? And what techniques have you found most helpful?

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