How to handle explanatory backstory

One of the most prominent issues I’ve seen with my older drafts is an excess of explanatory backstory, particularly when delivered as dialogue. Just as when we negatively react to someone’s faults most strongly when we have the same faults, we also tend to zero in on writing faults we’ve made when we see them in someone else’s writing.

People tend to speak, think, and write differently. For example, we might express ourselves in a very deep, serious, detailed, intellectual way in a journal entry or letter, but when speaking in casual conversation, we’ll keep it shorter and to the point. No one likes “As you know, Bob” dialogue any more than dialogue conveying way too much backstory way too quickly. The way you think about something, either in real time or hindsight, also probably isn’t how you express yourself out loud.

I’m sorry to make an example of these books, but one of the reasons I just didn’t warm to The Cage and To Life nearly as much as most of the other Shoah books I’ve read over the years is precisely because of this. Seriously, who talks like this in real life?

“What happened after you left Lodz? You were all trying to make your way to Bialystok, which was under Russian rule since the Russians and Germans made a nonaggression pact in 1939 and divided Poland.”

“I am so glad that we trust one another, not like some families, who steal one another’s bread to fill their own stomachs. I am so glad we are as we are and we have one another.”

So much of the dialogue in these books feels so infodumpy, unrealistic, and stilted, which is one reason I didn’t feel very emotionally compelled by the stories. (They’re also proof a first-person narrator doesn’t automatically bestow immediacy and a personal connection.)

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Some ways to fix or avoid long, infodumpy passages and uninterrupted monologues lasting at least a full page:

1. Break up the monologue to make it a real dialogue! For example, if a character has to explain something like a prison escape, have the other characters interrupt him or her to ask questions or make comments. That way, it’s not just a talking head gassing on for seven huge paragraphs.

2. Consider how much of this information absolutely needs to be conveyed right this moment. Some establishing information upfront can, e.g., make the difference between understanding behavior which might otherwise come across as unsympathetic and hating a character who’s not intended as a villain. You don’t have to graphically spell everything out immediately, but an obvious hint works better than some long monologue or infodumpy passage interrupting the narrative flow.

3. Consider how much information needs conveyed at all! Sometimes just the most important or basic details will suffice.

4. Third-person omniscient is your friend! When you’re telling a story about characters, instead of telling a story as a character, you get to describe things and provide some backstory in a way you could never with first-person or third-person limited. Ten or twenty lines of pertinent background information works so much better than an uninterrupted monologue or “As you know, Bob” dialogue.

5. A long monologue could be converted into a flashback.

6. If there’s enough backstory which truly needs conveyed, consider creating several chapters worth of flashback as a story in its own right. This is done in Leon Uris’s Exodus, where the early chapters about the Ben Canaan brothers, Karen, and Dov are more than just flashback chapters, but integral parts of the narrative, without which we couldn’t truly understand these characters.

7. Consider an epistolary format. Maybe something that sounds stilted and unrealistic as dialogue or infodumpy as narrative would sound perfect and believable when delivered in a letter, journal entry, or brochure.

8. Long narrative segments relating the events of a longer period of time can be fleshed out into actual story narration. Sometimes it’s necessary to condense the events of several months or a year in a wraparound narrative segment when they don’t really advance the plot, but sometimes they just beg to be expanded, particularly when you’re low on word count. This is why I’m able to expand my long short stories/pieces of backstory about my Shoah characters into actual books.

9. If it comes at or near the start of a book, or the start of another part of the book which opens a few years after the last part, it’s best to just delete it and work in the most pertinent information as necessary. This does nothing but slow the narrative down.

10. If it’s a first draft, don’t delete any of it yet! When we’re just getting to know characters and their stories, it’s natural to want to write down everything as it comes to us. This is so valuable in learning how to write them. The reader might not care about, e.g., the love story of your character’s grandparents, but knowing details like that really helps to give you insight into the overall story.

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5 thoughts on “How to handle explanatory backstory

  1. Backstory is always a rough one. Only one of my WIPs had backstop you and it was difficult to manage it. I’m still not sure if it’s good or right. lol I always try to put this info in the first 5 chapters. Any further than that then it may be hard for the reader to grasp it, especially if it’s important world-building stuff. But character back story I like to sprinkle throughout to build mystery.

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  2. Some of my first stories I had this problem and a good beta reader pointed it out and I ended up cutting or rewriting. When reading, I find there’s nothing worse than a character talking for one giant paragraph. It’s hard for me to read, so I really like your point of having other character’s break up the monologue.

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  3. Hi,

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  4. My goodness, that’s some bad dialogue!

    Backsotry is the curse of every author, I’m sure. I try to avoid it by transforming backstory into story. I mean, by letting the backstory filter through the story. Does it takes a lot of time? It sure does, which may be why some authors prefer to go for the more straightfarward backstory, but… well…

    What do you normally do? 🙂

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