How To Present Backgrounds In Fiction Writing

Presenting background is one of the trickiest things for new fiction writers to master. It’s just not an easy thing to do. Do too little and your reader might not completely understand the story. Do too much and you risk turning your story into a boring exposition of past history. Finding the right balance is critical to writing fiction that actually succeeds at entertaining the reader.

There are different ways to weave backgrounds into a story. They can be as short as a single clause or as long as an entire page. Some of the more common include:

  1. Backgrounds As Narrations. You can reveal background and context by describing it, similar to the way you would describe a scene. It’s critical to keep it short, though. Backgrounds, just like scene descriptions, hold up the action, creating a lull in the story. Extend it too far and you can end up putting the reader to sleep before the next “real time” scene even begins.
  2. Backgrounds As Dialogue. A more interesting way of presenting backgrounds is to integrate it into dialogue. Unlike straight narrations, these are able to move the story forward if done creatively. It’s a lot more difficult to pull off, though, since you’ll need to weave the background and contextual elements into your characters’ exchanges. Done right, it makes for a better alternative; done poorly, you end up with dialogue that sounds drawn up to serve your need for exposition.
  3. Background As Action. You can also present background as action. The way a character responds to certain situations, for instance, can be used to provide clues about their upbringing. Same with the way an employee behaves in front of a particular co-worker is indicative of how their relationship is. Presenting background in the form of action is more dynamic, allowing you to maintain the story’s pace while revealing information about your subjects.
  4. Backgrounds As Flashbacks. Most styles of presenting backgrounds slow down the story. Flashbacks halt them completely, shifting the reader’s attention to an entirely new scene from the past. For this reason, many experienced fiction writers and editors steer clear of them in their writing. In fact, I’ve received fiction guidelines from magazines and anthologies that explicitly forbid its use for submitted stories. Flashbacks can be useful when you need to present a previous event in its entirely. As in, the readers needs all the exact details in its entirety, such as when a detective recounts a two-year old case that’s relevant to the what’s currently going on. Avoid them if you can, but don’t hesitate to use them if they are what the story needs.

Backgrounds Are Explanations

Think of backgrounds as explanations — something you need to give when introducing an element that the reader may not understand. “Need,” by the way, is the operative word. If something doesn’t need explaining, then you skip the extra discussion. Same goes for backgrounds. When a reader can understand a situation, a character or an event without going into past details, then you skip it. Minimizing your forays into backgrounds will help speed up the flow of your stories.

As much as you can, whittle down the amount of background information to the bare minimum. The less of it the story requires, the more you can focus on action, character and plot.

Don’t Lead With The Background

Remember when we said that background exposition is boring? If you lead with the background, that means you’re opening the story with some of your worst material. Opening sequences always work best when they can hook the reader in, particularly scenes laced with action and intrigue. That’s why you never open the story by introducing the context — it’s a heck of a slow way to start things off.

Keep It At The Start

While you’re not supposed to start with the background, it’s a good idea to get it out of the way within the first quarter of your story. This goes for all character backgrounds and situational contexts. Integrating them within that first fourth allows you to focus on “present” events as you build into your story’s high points and get deeper into the plot, leading to a faster and more satisfying pace.

Ever seen one of those movies where they continue to introduce background elements even after the first half? Chances are, those expositions felt awkward and out of place, since people expect you to build towards the climax, rather than keep punching in low points into the story.

Juicy Backgrounds

Some background information, such as startling revelations of a character’s ancestry or a life-defining event, can create high points in your scenes. Use these to your advantage by keeping them as the last pieces of background you reveal. Dump them too early and they can lose their impact. Don’t keep them close till late in the story, of course (like we said, reveal everything by the end of the first quarter), but keeping them till that end point allows you to maximize their relevance to your story.

Break It Up

You can introduce all necessary background information in one fell swoop. Most of the time, though, it’s better to present them in bits and pieces as needed, allowing the reader to piece the whole picture together. Readers only require as much information as will be necessary to understand the next scene. You can hold off on other details for later, as the need for them comes.

Doing this allows you to integrate parts of the background into separate paragraphs, dialogues and scenes, minimizing the negative repercussions they can cause in the story. Plus, it makes your background exposition more meaningful when they’re introduced right at the point where they are relevant to what’s going on.

Be Straightforward

Give background information directly. There’s no need to beat around the bush, dress them up in fancy figures of speech, or turn them into a subplot with suspense elements. Those things aren’t necessary. Instead, give readers the details straight up, spoon-feeding the required background details to get it over with, so you can move on to the more important parts of the scene.