How to Convey Backstory Without Infodumps, Dreams or Flashbacks

Published by Mallory in the blog Mallory's blog. Views: 143

My first three blogs have consisted of a "don't seek approval when breaking the norms" post, an anti-censorship post, and a "get off your ass and actually write instead of passively saying you'd like to" post. I plan to use my next few blog posts to give some tips about good writing.

Today's topic deals with how to convey backstory information without going into an infodump or flashback. A big part of this refers to the commonly-used "Show Not Tell!!" phrase, of course, but it's more of a specific subcategory. It's easy for most people to understand that writing "Jane's eyes shifted around the room as she took rapid steps backward toward the door" is more vivid and natural than "Jane was nervous and wanted out." But let's say there's a huge chunk of backstory information that you need to convey: for example, your MC was in a traumatic house fire before the events of the book began, or your MC lives in a fantasy world that's inhibited by wolves that eat people at night.

So many developing writers descend into Infodump Mode or feel forced to use a flashback/dream.

But you don't have to.

My advice is the phrase you might have heard me post hundreds of times on the boards..."Slip it in naturally." Here's what this means. I explain best through using examples, so here goes.

(Starting with the fire example. Let's say the kid is in school working with fire in chemistry class.):
"Jess, are you okay?" My lab partner shot me a pointed glance and tilted her head toward the undone worksheet.
"Yeah, hang on, I'm almost done." The match shook in my hand. Yellow tongues of flame licked even closer to my finger. Too close.
"Here, you take this." I shoved the match at her.
She took it, and I ignored the irritated sigh, too busy yanking my sleeves back over my arms. But the scars had already been exposed for a second. The damn burns looked just as gross now as they had three months ago in the hospital.
"Sorry," I said, forcing a smile. "I was just worried we'd run out of time." I didn't want questions touching too close to what had happened to my home, my family. Not now, not ever.
(Then move to totally non-fire-related things. You've conveyed that her home/family was damaged in a fire and she still suffers from it. Mission accomplished. Done. If it's hugely important info that plays a big role in the story, just do this type of thing several times -- spaced out, maybe once every few chapters. Readers will get it. Less is more. No major infodump, flashback or nightmare required.

Okay, now for the wolf example. This one might help if you aren't sure how to convey certain aspects of your fantasy world. Let's say there's loose werewolves roaming around that are going to come out soon: Joe knows this, but Mark and the reader don't know.
Mark: "Why are you looking so anxious?" Mark realized how quiet the woods were when Joe stopped talking and grew focused--too focused for comfort.
Joe: "We have wolves in these woods. They'll get to the animals back at the farm if we don't make sure they're all locked in for the night. Let's go." He began taking quick strides in the direction of the house.
Mark: "But the animals are already locked in. You checked before we left."
Joe: "I said let's GO." He walked faster.
In the distance behind them, a distorted howl screeched through the night. Joe fought to keep a calm face so Mark wouldn't find out that the animals were the least of his worries. He'd just panic and fall behind, and the last thing Joe's family needed was yet another monster hunting them down.

See how that works? You don't need to explicitly state anything, like "Jess was in a traumatic fire" or "The wolves in the woods in Joe's town are actually werewolves." Nor do you need any type of long description or flashback/dream to convey it. You can slip information in very subtly -- in once sentence, even, rather than paragraphs -- and readers will know.

The two clips certainly aren't perfect, but they're just supposed to show that it only takes a little bit to convey something, no matter how crucial to the story. I'm not saying my examples are 100 percent free of tell-not-show: If you want to be a purist and get technical, then you could classify the phrase "He answered the phone" as a tell-y infodump, but that's not what this post is about.

The main idea is that less is more.
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