True Magic is never an easy road.
For sixteen-year old Abigail Renshaw, the terrifying nightmares are not the worst part. When apparitions start leaking out of the nightmares into her waking life—Well, that’s a problem.
But Abby’s dealt with hallucinations before, and she’s nothing if not resilient. Following clues from the nightmares, she convinces her mother to let her visit Harmony Springs, the small town in Florida where Abby was born, and where her grandmother still lives.
There, Abby finds unexpected help from new friends: a compulsive teenage blogger named Molly Quick, and Molly’s older brother Ray-Ray (a guy Abby really starts to like).
The not-so-good news? Abby’s apparitions might be real after all. And one of them wants to kill her. Ghosts of Bliss Bayou is available at Amazon.
Story Craft: Presenting Backstory in Scenes
As fiction writers, we often hear the advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” But what exactly does that mean?
To me, it means to present your story with immediacy. Write it mainly in dramatic scenes, and focus each scene in a single character’s point of view.
But a rich story embodies a lot of information. If you try to convey all of it in scenes, you can easily find yourself writing lots of extraneous scenes, as well as using obviously contrived dialogue (“As we all know, Tom, the Druna are an ancient elvish race who live in Dampwood.”) This is a great way to ruin a story.
For this post, let’s define backstory as all the information from outside a scene that the reader needs to understand that scene. Skilled story-tellers use a number of techniques to present backstory within the structure of their scenes. Here are few that I’ve observed.
Tip 1: Create a scene in which the character can reflect
In real life, we all spend time thinking about our problems. Your characters can do the same: when out for a walk, waiting in line, riding a bus, whatever.
For example, in Chapter 1 of Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, our heroine Abby has woken up from a recurring nightmare. Worse, figures from the nightmare are now appearing in her waking life. To get a grip, Abby goes out for a run. During the run, she has a chance to reflect on her past:
With the route set, my brain flips into autopilot, and I can think about other stuff.
Like my hallucinations.
I’ve always been the sensitive, imaginative type. Hyperaware of other people’s feelings. Sometimes I can tell what they’re going to say before they say it. And I’ve always been prone to anxiety. But when I started to go through puberty, things got really bad. I was afraid all the time, and then I started to hear voices in my head. Scary voices, telling me I might as well just die, that I had no future, that I was cursed.
Just like my dad.
This goes on for several more paragraphs and gives the reader a chunk of backstory while keeping the immediacy of our protagonist confronting her very scary problem.
Tip 2: Let characters catch each other up
We’re all familiar with scenes where a character learns some backstory by hearing it from another character. You have to handle this carefully or it will seem contrived or ‘stagy.’
First, make sure your viewpoint character would realistically learn this information from the other character. (Tom really doesn’t know that the Druna live in Dampwood.) Secondly, present the dialogue in short chunks, not long speeches. Finally, make the disclosure part of an emotionally-engaging scene.
In this example, Abby has travelled to Florida to visit her grandmother and try to figure out where her nightmares are coming from. She’s just met Molly, and they’re talking over coffee about some recent weird happenings in the town.
Molly nods. “It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. The history of Harmony Springs is full of paranormal stories.”
A wriggle of fear starts in my stomach. “You mean like apparitions and ghosts?”
“Sure. The families who founded the town were spiritualists. The Greenes, the Hollingsworths, the Aldens”—she gestures at me with an open hand—“the Renshaws.”
The wriggle turns into a cringe. “I didn’t know that.”
The scene goes on to reveal more of the town’s history and a supposed curse on Abby’s family. Notice that this exposition is rooted in the protagonist’s immediate and deep emotional concerns.
Tip 3: Add blocks of backstory near the start of the scene.
In this technique, you start a scene in the present, ideally with an emotional hook to engage the reader. Then after a few lines, you skip back to reveal the backstory. This is not really a flashback, just a bit of exposition that explains how we got here.
Midway through Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Abby is scheduled to leave Harmony Springs. She has tried to convince her Mom to let her stay longer, but the reader doesn’t yet know the outcome. In the next scene, Abby meets Molly and tells her that, after a week up north, she’ll be coming back.
Molly grins. “Yippee! You must really like us.”
I grin back. “Yes!”
Mom took a lot of convincing. Granma and I both talked to her three times before she gave in. She finally had to admit how little time she’d actually have to spend with me in London, and I think she began to see how lonely I would have been. She did insist that I fly home this week so we could see each other, but that was something I wanted too.
Here, the tension of whether or not Abby will get to stay is resolved as part of a scene that emphasizes her growing friendship with Molly. A single paragraph of backstory does the trick.
What do you think?
Think about your favorite authors. How do they handle the presentation of backstory? Are there tips and tricks you can add to my list?
Jack Massa has studied writing and other forms of magic for many years. He has published fantasy, science fiction, poetry, and oodles of technical nonfiction.
In addition to the Abby Renshaw adventures, Jack’s current projects include The Glimnodd Cycle (epic fantasy featuring witches and ice-pirates; two novels published to date) and the Conjurer of Rhodes series (historical fantasy set in the ancient world; forthcoming).
Jack lives in Florida with his magical wife, wonderful son, and a pet orange tree named Grover. If you’d like to know more about Jack, you can visit his website, follow him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.