The Backstory Drip (Backstory Techniques, Pt. 3 of 3)

The Backstory Drip (Backstory Techniques, Pt. 3 of 3)

What are the best backstory techniques you can use in your story?

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been discussing some of the options writers have for sharing backstory in their stories. So far, we’ve talked about four specialized techniques, analyzing their respective advantages, disadvantages and best-use practices:

All four techniques are important and useful, but most are only appropriate in specific situations when the author desires to achieve a certain effect. What we haven’t yet talked about is the single best backstory technique—the one used in every type of story, the one that is always a good choice, the one that offers the fewest possible disadvantages, and the one that is most effective in communicating important information to readers without interrupting the momentum of the main plot.

This technique is the “backstory drip”—and is actually several different techniques that come together to reveal backstory so subtly and effectively readers may not even think to distinguish it from the main story. Of course, the caveat is that it works this way when it’s done well. Today, we’re going to talk about how to do it well.

Once again, the backstory on this post about backstory is that I was inspired to write it after watching Amazon’s limited series The English, a western of vengeance, played out in a hellscape of the American Great Plains by an English lady intent on killing the father of her dead son and a Pawnee warrior determined to claim land he is owed in Nebraska for his service in the U.S. Cavalry. Although I liked lots of things about the show, I felt the main technique it chose to impart its backstory—an episode-long flashback inserted three-quarters of the way into the story—was a misstep. I specifically analyzed this choice in the first post about flashbacks.

The English (starring Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer) can teach writers about backstory techniques—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Today, as we discuss the incredibly versatile and effective technique of the backstory drip, we’ll take a quick look at how this show did utilize this technique and how it could have utilized it more (and in place of the flashback) to better effect. Please note: there will be SPOILERS for The English in this post.

The Only Backstory Rule That Matters

I like to say there is only one backstory rule that matters, that being: Never share backstory with your audience until absolutely necessary.

As with any “never/always” rule, this is necessarily hyperbolic. The essential truth is that backstory must matter to the story. It could matter for any number of reasons, including because it:

  • Provides information that prevents reader confusion
  • Offers context for character motivation
  • Directly turns the main plot

If the inclusion of backstory doesn’t do one of these three things, then the author must question whether its inclusion is the best choice.

This rule becomes even more important if you’re using one of the specialized techniques we talked about in previous posts, since all four of these techniques call extra attention to themselves by standing outside the main plot. However, within the skillful use of the backstory drip, you can actually get away with a lot more.

The backstory drip refers to the practice of slowly “dripping” backstory throughout the story. The backstory isn’t dumped obviously in any one place (although it can be used in cooperation with other techniques, such as the flashback). Rather, the backstory drip distributes information throughout the entire story, when and as it is needed, usually without ever leaving the POV characters’ present-time perspective.

think of Backstory as Foreshadowing and Payoff

Ultimately, the backstory drip is really a foreshadowing technique. What you’re dripping in throughout the story are clues (or plants), leading up to reveals (or payoffs).

Now, not all necessary backstory in a story will be worthy of a reveal. A reveal, after all, is a big moment in a story. It is the revelation of information that turns the plot. As such, writers are often tempted to turn immediately to the technique of the flashback, which allows them to fully dramatize these important moments from the characters’ pasts. While this may occasionally be the best approach, a skillful use of foreshadowing and revelation can often create an even stronger and more seamless effect.

Don’t undervalue seamlessness within a story. Fireworks are great, but don’t put them into a story just for the sake of fireworks. Rather, look for ways in which to use the backstory drip throughout the story to make sure readers understand how this information from the characters’ pasts is crucial to their present.

Sound backstory drip techniques include the following:

1. Only Tease Backstory That Turns the Plot

Just as not all backstory info deserves to be teased at all, not all backstory reveals deserve to be teased over and over again. Always weigh the impact of any particular reveal in your story. The more impactful a reveal, the more you can tease it. But if the revelation of the info doesn’t change much in the plot, then over-teasing it will cause readers to expect more bang for their buck than you’re able to deliver.

For example, sometimes you may just need to let readers know information upfront (for example, maybe two of your characters are friends who grew up as next-door neighbors), so readers can return to the magnetic pull of the story’s main throughline. On the other hand, in a different story, this same bit of information might be important enough to turn the plot (in which case you would drip clues, hints, and insinuations about your two characters’ relationship, leading up to a moment in which the revelation that they grew up together proves itself important enough to change something in the plot’s trajectory).

2. Make At Least One Character Need to Know the Backstory of The Other Character(s)

Readers shouldn’t be the only ones who want and need to know the backstory. One of the single best ways to make sure backstory reveals matter to your story is to make sure they matter to at least one character. This is also a reminder not to make characters spill their life histories to each other too early in the story. Utilize secrets. These secrets don’t have to be huge in themselves; they can be small, intimate, and mundane—as long as they are important to one or both characters.

Sometimes a character’s desire to discover the backstory will be a throughline of its own, as one or more characters track down information to solve a mystery. Often, backstory secrets grow in importance to characters as their relationships deepen. When they first meet, they may not care about or want to know about the motivating catalyst in the other’s past. But as they go deeper down the rabbit hole with each other, these little mysteries suddenly become important.

Remember: the more important a backstory reveal is to a character, the more important it will be to readers.

3. Backstory Secrets and Mysteries Should Come With a High Price for At Least One Character

Characters must have a reason for not telling each other the whole truth about themselves. Information is only capable of turning the plot if it changes things. Backstory reveals should alter the status quo in some way, either within the relationship or on a larger scale within the action of the plot.

Load your backstory reveals with stakes. Either the character delivering the information or the character discovering it should pay a price for this reveal, even if it is just a temporary threat to their mutual trust. think of a reveal as a “crisis of commitment” within the relationship. Once the information is out there, choices will have to be made.

4. Don’t Share Backstory Until It Is Crucial for Either Turning the Plot or Preventing Reader Confusion

Here’s our “one rule” again. Not only does this rule help you weed out backstory information that really isn’t important to the story, it also helps you draw out the suspense of your foreshadowing. The higher the stakes, the bigger the impact on the plot—and the bigger the impact on the plot, the more foreshadowing you can apply earlier in the story. Either way, try to gauge the absolute latest moment in the story you can reveal the full backstory and still have the greatest impact on the plot.

3 Ways to Reveal Backstory

Taken as a whole, the backstory drip is not a simplistic and obvious technique, as are flashbacks and prologues (which is, perhaps, why new writers sometimes find the latter easier to wield). However, there are specific techniques you can use to disperse backstory slowly and masterfully throughout your story.

Here are three:

1. Reveal Backstory Via Dialogue

For my money, this is the single best technique for distributing backstory. Why? Because dialogue is the technique that comes the closest to true, real-time “showing” within written fiction. You can subtly drip clues throughout the story, leading up to a reveal, by having characters themselves drop clues to each other in their dialogue. The hints they drop about the things they don’t want to talk about can sometimes hint at more than any outright information.

Dialogue happens between characters, which means it impacts not just the plot but the relationships. When you are crafting your backstory reveals to impact other characters, dialogue becomes your single most powerful technique for unleashing that backstory.

When dialogue reveals are well-handled, inner and outer conflict will both be present—context and subtext in the dialogue—as characters wrangle with themselves and each other about what to share and what not to. However, writers must be careful with this technique. Info-dumping in dialogue is still info-dumping. Take into consideration all the many techniques of good dialogue that attempt to recreate the subtle give-and-take of real-life conversations.

For Example: The English is a backstory-centric story that utilizes the drip effectively for planting its clues and revealing its eventual payoffs (with the exception of that one interruptive flashback). It does this particularly well via dialogue, thanks to the slowly evolving relationship between the two mismatched leads. Most of the unrevealed backstory belongs to British lady Cornelia Locke. Her traveling companion Eli Whip starts out adamantly not wanting to know anything about her, but as their journey deepens, she drops small clues about her past, her motivations, her dead son, and her relationship with her son’s father. Eventually, the context alone allows Eli to figure out much of what happened to Cornelia, and she reveals to him other details in dialogue. The visceral nature of one character being impacted by information about another character is inherently more powerful than information that is revealed, at a remove, in a flashback. The entire flashback episode could have been deleted and its information—about Cornelia’s rape, her infection with syphilis, and her son’s death from the same—conveyed by Cornelia to Eli in far less time and far more powerfully.

Dialogue is one of the single best backstory techniques for both clues and reveals, since it not only shares information but creates consequences within character relationships.

2. Reveal Backstory Via External Discovery/Visual Dramatization

An equally powerful technique is that of “visually” showing readers the revelation. In a visual medium, such as film, the reveal can be shown literally; in written fiction, it will be dramatized through description and an interspersion of the other techniques.

With this technique, readers do not learn about the backstory through a character’s dialogue, but through a physical or visual discovery of some sort. For example, perhaps characters discover an old photograph in an attic or stumble upon the scene of a crime. This can be used both for the drip of clues early on and for the reveal later in the story.

By the time you get to the reveal, whatever the character sees or experiences should be evocative enough that readers immediately understand the significance with little to no explanation necessary from the writer (which is not to say characters may not add explanation later as they react with one another).

For Example: The English employs several viscerally potent visual clues about the effects of the history upon the present. Several characters’ gruesome disfigurements from syphilis are potent enough to communicate Cornelia’s backstory in a way that directly impacts the present narrative and the characters who are trying to navigate it. Similarly, photographs from Eli’s past, in which he recognizes Cavalry officers response for a massacre, communicate their import to the audience just as quickly as to Eli himself.

Visual clues, including an important photograph, are among the visual backstory techniques used in The English.

3. Reveal Backstory Via Internal Narrative

Finally, you can also sow clues and offer reveals from within a character’s internal narrative. This approach is less evocative than dialogue and does come with more caveats. Particularly, it’s tough to reveal something about a character’s own backstory from within his internal narrative; after all, he knew all along.

You’ll achieve the most powerful effect every time when you align your readers’ discovery and response to a reveal with a character’s. Thus, if you’re revealing something about your POV character, it’s best to utilize dialogue, since the POV character (and the readers) can at least observe the other character’s reaction.

However, if a character is discovering information new to her, she may be all by herself when she figures it out, in which case allowing readers to experience this revelation inside the character’s mind can be powerful.

For Example: The English doesn’t allow for internal narrative in the same way that a novel might, but it does tease backstory through Cornelia’s opening voiceover, which we are meant to understand as her thoughts, in which she reflects back on the events of the main story and earlier.

Although backstory should be interacted with sparingly within internal narrative (or voice-overs, as in the case of The English), this third approach is an important backstory technique to have in your toolbag.

***

Backstory is an important part of any story. The context it provides elevates a story from a simple narrative throughline to an episode that exists as part of a larger whole—both within an individual character’s life and within the greater human drama. As such, backstory is a crucial technique to get right. Mastering the five techniques we’ve discussed throughout this series—flashbacks, prologues, backstory-as-story, alternating timelines, and especially the backstory drip—will allow you to choose which will most elevate your story at different intervals throughout the narrative.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which do you think are the most effective backstory techniques? Tell me in the comments!

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