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Thinking Virtually

#7: Imagining Backstory

Kimberly Appelcline
April 9, 2001

Part of the 5-part Elements of Good Storytelling series from Skotos Tech.

 

Alright, folks. We're in the home stretch now in this series of articles on Virtual Groundwork. This week's article discusses how to form backstory when you creating fiction ... be it short stories, novels, RPGs, or Bazooka Joe bubble gum comics.

For the past five weeks I've been offering up really core ideas for how to tell a story and I've done that because I believe it's important to think about these things no matter what type of fiction you're creating. Character, setting, plot, and backstory are topics I expect to return to again and again, and I hope these initial five weeks of discussion will be a useful foundation.

Next week I'm going to be offering up the first of a two original articles discussing how The Elements of Good StoryTelling can be used in RPGs and CRPGs alike, and then I'll be spending a week talking about the purpose of this column before moving on to other discussions of game design. -SA


Few stories start at the beginning. As discussed in the first article in this series, The Elements of Good Storytelling, most stories start somewhere in the middle of events, when things have already gotten interesting, just when a crucial turning point approaches. And this means that a whole fictional world of events took place before page one of the story. "Backstory" is the history behind the story, the past behind the settings, characters, and events brought to life on the page. (For more information on how backstory relates specifically to each of these, see also the other articles in this series: Writing Dynamic Settings, Creating Vivid Characters, and the section on beginnings in Plot Strategies.) Sometimes explicitly explained, and other times only implied, backstory helps to create significant consequences (crucial to plot) and continues to accumulate right through the final scene.

Hamlet as an Example of Backstory

As one excellent example of the power of backstory, Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins with the appearance of the king’s ghost, but before this event many others took place: the king’s marriage to Gertrude, the birth of their son, wars and political intrigue, the king’s murder by his treacherous brother, and the seduction of the widowed Gertrude by her husband’s murderer, to name only a few! This extensive backstory crucially affects the events of the play itself, as Hamlet feels bound to revenge a murder that occurred before page one. Some of this backstory — for example, Hamlet’s loving relationship with his father — is only implied, but other events — such as the murder scene — are described explicitly through dialogue.

If we were to graphically represent the greater fictional chronology into which the events of Shakespeare’s play fit, it might look something like this:

FIGURE 101

Hamlet’s avenging of his father’s murder is only a tiny moment in a longer story, a tiny blip in the timeline. When writing stories, you need to foster an awareness of the greater timeline, and not just the moment about which you are writing in your story. This is what gives stories a multi-dimensional quality, makes them seem "real."

Ways to Communicate Backstory

There are three primary ways to communicate backstory in your fiction:

You give information through narration when you actually write a scene, such as a flashback, that presents backstory events directly, complete with actions and dialogue. You also use narration when you write something like "Joe had always been a bully, even on the playground in first grade, and that hadn’t changed with the years."

You give information through description when you communicate backstory to your readers more subtly, through characters’ physical characteristics (such as scars or bruises), objects in the setting (for example, lots of Chinese art and memorabilia in a living room might indicate that a character had traveled in that country), etc.

Presenting backstory through dialogue means letting your characters reveal the past through their own speech within the story. For example, the ghost in Hamlet reveals backstory when he describes the circumstances of his murder in his plea for revenge. Darth Vader reveals backstory when he tells Luke Skywalker, "Luke, I am your father."

Plays and films primarily use dialogue to reveal backstory — though they also frequently use description (through set design or costumes) or narration (through flashback scenes) — and text-based games generally rely on these methods in the same proportions. You should practice all three — and perhaps investigate how playwrights and film-makers have used them, too — since you may find them useful in different places in your writing.

How Much Is Enough?

Okay, so there’s backstory behind every setting, character, and event in your tale. And you can reveal it through narration, description, and dialogue. That’s a lot of backstory! So when do you have enough? How much backstory is too much? Well, to a certain extent, this is up to you, the writer. But if you let your story get bogged down in too much backstory, you will lose forward momentum in the plot of your tale, and your readers will become bored. They’ll put your story down and go outside to enjoy the sunny day. They’ll forget why they picked up your story in the first place. You’ll lose your audience’s attention, and that’s a storyteller’s fate worse than death!

So you must keep the forward momentum of your story going. Flashbacks — those giant tangents of fiction — can mean disaster for plot momentum, so use them wisely and cautiously, and choose more subtle means of communicating backstory where possible. Often, if you have thought about the backstory behind your settings, characters, and plot events, that knowledge will subtly find its way into your writing without you consciously looking for ways to fit it in.

So my primary advice to you is to look at how other writers use backstory (through narration, description, and dialogue) and practice imagining backstory (as described in the exercises below). And then just give it a try. Read, imagine, and write ... and have fun with it!

Exercises:

  1. Re-read a favorite story and make a list of events that occurred before the story’s first page. What kind of past do the characters have, separately and together? How does this backstory affect the movement of events after page one? How did the author reveal the backstory? Where did he/she use narration? Where description? Where dialogue? (The more stories you analyze in this way, the better you will internalize the methods of communicating backstory!)
  2. Think about someone you knew well when you were young, someone you lost track of long ago. Remember where they lived, who their family members were, what they wore, how they talked, what they liked to do. If there are things you don’t remember, or never knew, imagine them. Write it all down. When you’re done, read it through and think about whether parts of this could serve as the backstory for an adult character.
  3. Grab a notebook and go out to a public place where there are plenty of people (a restaurant, a shopping mall, a train station, etc.). Watch the people around you, and imagine backstories for them. Who are they, and what are they doing? What heroic, evil, or cowardly things have they done in their lives to get them where they are? Is he a spy? Is she a neurosurgeon? Did he go to cooking school in Italy? Did she nearly die in a car accident when she was fifteen? Write five separate backstories (about 200 words each) for five different people.
  4. Write an argument or romantic scene between two of the characters you described in Exercise 3. Try to communicate some backstory through narration, description, and/or dialogue. (When is enough enough? Don’t overwhelm your audience.)
  5. Imagine and write a backstory (about 200 words) for each of the following characters. Where were they born? What were their families like? How did they get where they are today?
    1. a thirty-year-old lawyer in the hospital
    2. a McDonald’s employee getting married in Vegas
    3. an American housewife visiting Paris
    4. the driver of a hit-and-run accident
    5. a college professor with twelve cats
  6. Read through a newspaper, paying special attention to advice columns (such as "Dear Abby" or Ann Landers), gossip columns, and so-called "human interest" stories. Do any of the stories seem to hold the kernel of a fiction story? Imagine backstories for the "characters" involved. Who are they? Where do they come from, and what were they like as children? How did they get into the situation described in the newspaper?
  7. As in Exercise 4, write a scene between two or more characters you’ve worked on in these exercises. Try to subtly reveal backstory, but — again — try not to overwhelm your reader with too much information. When you’re done, show the scene to a friend, and see what backstory they glean from what you’ve written.
  8. Make a list of at least 10 different ways you could reveal backstory in a text-based game. Here’s a few to get you started:
    1. someone tells a character something directly (as when Ben Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker about his father)
    2. a character hears a song that reveals past events
    3. a character receives or finds an informative letter
    4. What devices can you think up? Get creative!
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