Info-dumping, the criticism every writer dreads hearing.
But how do we show backstory without infodumping?
In today's article, I'll give you 6 genuine ways—#6 might surprise you— to show character backstories in your writing process without blurting it all out in one big monologue.
Plus, I'll share my go-to writing tip for keeping readers hooked with just enough detail at just the right time.
What is infodumping?
Before we talk about the ways you can avoid lengthy info dumps, let's be sure we're on the same page about what they are. Dictionary.com says:
a large quantity of backstory, or background information, supplied at once, often as a narrative at the beginning of a story, film, etc.
That covers early story info-dumps, but the Cambridge dictionary defines it a little more broadly:
the practice of giving too much information at the same time
So whether your first chapter needs to give the reader important background information (and you're worried about overdoing it) or you need to dole out a chunk of info right before a key plot event, info-dumping all that backstory can be tempting.
It's important to find the balance between revealing too much all at once and not enough for readers to have the necessary scene or story context. And depending on what type of backstory you're developing for your character, some approaches may work better than others.
Here are six ways you can find that Goldilocks zone where the backstory you show is just enough.
Everyone is afraid of something. Even if, like Harry Potter, your character is afraid of fear itself, they should have at least one deep-seated fear. And since fears can be a direct result of a traumatic or unpleasant experience, showing a character's fear can provide an opportunity to slow-drip why they're afraid.
Communicating a fear can be as simple as stating it outright.
No, Dr. Morbius. I can't go into that cave. You know I'm afraid of bats.
Or you could imply a fear by showing a character choosing something, avoiding something, or reacting to something. Those are all genuine ways to show backstory in themselves, so we'll talk more about each of them later in this article.
You can also imply a character is afraid of something by making an opinion statement.
Michael, going into that cave is gonna be a hard no. I hate bats.
Regardless of what your character is afraid of, hinting at that fear on page is a healthy way to tell readers, "Hey, there's something more here to discover. Let's dig deeper."
What you would NOT want to do, especially in a situation where the character states their fear outright, would be to follow up that statement with all the reasons why. Remember that we're trying to slow-drip that backstory, not info-dump it. Here's an example of what not to do.
No, Dr. Morbius. I can't go into that cave. You know I'm afraid of bats. The last time I went into a dark cave, it was during the winter solstice, and I was stranded in that jungle in Brazil—remember? Well anyway, I got bit by like 30 different bats and I nearly died, and I also ended up with these weird sonar abilities, which is why I'm running from the government, because they want to do tests on me!
Holy word vomit! Not only is the sentence above super long (and not all that healthy from a grammar perspective), most of what it reveals is irrelevant to the conversation happening in the current scene. This is a good (albeit brief) example of infodumping backstory in a scene, something you should definitely try to avoid.
The Breadcrumb Method
Instead of giving the reader all the things all at once, consider what they need to know right now and what extra small detail will hook them for the next bit of backstory reveal. Then, the next time you drop backstory into a scene, use the same method of sprinkle-and-hook. Think of this backstory-reveal method as dropping breadcrumbs for the reader to follow.
Here's what that might look like using my earlier example:
No, Dr. Morbius. I can't go into that cave. You know I'm afraid of bats. The last time I tangled with those dreadful creatures... well, we both know how that turned out.
Now I've established a shared backstory that teases the reader with the knowledge that something interesting happened (without flooding their brain with inane details).
This sort of statement implicitly promises the reader that you'll actually reveal that piece of backstory later in the story, so don't forget to follow up on it!
Now that we know how to use the Breadcrumb Method of showing backstory, let's look at five other ways it can be used in your story.
Desires, like fears, are what I categorize as part of a character's set of core values. People want things for different reasons at different times in their lives. As storytellers, we care most about historical events that are relevant to the story we're spinning right now.
So while a character might want lots of things, you need to decide which of those are important enough to show the reader on page. (Remember how we talked about not breaking implicit promises?) It's okay to sprinkle in a character's extraneous wants for flavor, but try to focus on ways these desires can subtly reveal important details about their backstory.
For example, playing off my Morbius theme from earlier...
Michael, please. Let me test the serum.
If Dr. Morbius's friend is begging him to be a test subject for this mysterious serum, the friend obviously wants something very badly. I'll go into surface desires vs root desires in another article, but for now just know that this statement tells the reader two things:
- The friend wants to test the serum (even though he didn't outright say that)—this is his surface desire— and
- The friend has a deeper reason for wanting to test the serum—his root desire. He believes the serum will cure him and he wants to be cured.
In the movie, Dr. Morbius's friend Milo has a debilitating childhood disease that is slowly killing him. That's information this story absolutely needs to reveal, but it doesn't have to be given right up front as an infodump.
The way you show a character reacting to something is a powerful tool in your writer's toolkit. A reaction can be as subtle as a change in breathing or as obvious as a punch to the face. Reactions can help us show backstory in nuanced ways. For example:
When Bilbo sees Frodo's ring in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring movie, we see a combination of greed, longing, and excitement flash across his face. Even viewers who have no prior knowledge of Bilbo's adventures with the One Ring can intuit that he has some sort of history with this ring, and those events still affect him today.
In case you have no idea who Bilbo or Frodo Baggins is, here's another example (that I just made up).
Jedrick's heart rate spiked at the sound of the slamming door. He didn't physically flinch—showing such an obvious weakness had been beaten out of him—but the flash of fear that always followed a loud slam was something he wasn't sure he'd ever get over.
In this scenario, we know nothing about the character other than he flinches from hearing a door slam. But his reaction tells us that something in his past is still affecting him today, and as the storyteller, you can slow drip that history reveal through moments like this until the reader is primed for the full reveal.
Did you notice that the two examples above used different types of reactions? What's really neat about reactions is that they don't have to be physical or visible. Jedrick's reaction is internal, and the little bits of information given by the rest of the sentence tell us there's a good reason for that level of physical control. This subtler type of line-level storytelling is backstory gold.
Sometimes a character's decision tells us more than simply what they chose. It can reveal why they chose that path or that there were deeper, unspoken factors at play in the decision.
In the finale sequence of the movie Star Wars: A New Hope, Han Solo is on his way to pay off old debts when he turns his ship around and comes back to help the rebels take on the Death Star. This decision is out of character for him. Han is a private guy. He does things on his own, for his own gain. He doesn't commit to defending causes or keeping close personal ties (aside from Chewbacca). He's a pirate, and he has spent his life cheating and being cheated in pursuit of personal freedom.
By risking his newfound wealth, comfort, and safety to join the Rebellion's fight against the Empire, Han is showing us that he is ready to make a change. There's more to him than what A New Hope reveals, and when we watch his origin movie, Solo, his decision makes more sense. His backstory is one of loneliness, betrayal, and a scrappy struggle for survival. His choice to join the Rebellion gives us little glimpses of that history because his decision is out of character.
Han is ready to stop running and put down roots because he's already lived his life behind a mask of indifference and it only brought him more loneliness. His decision demonstrates that he's ready to face all those old fears his backstory encapsulates.
Have you ever burned your hand on a hot stovetop? Bet you were a lot more careful after that. We instinctively avoid activities and actions we believe will be painful. Sometimes our choices manifest on a gut-reaction level. You burned your hand on the stove last month, and even if that physical wound has healed, your body is careful not to repeat the same actions that got you burned the first time. You avoid any movements that might lead to touching that hot stovetop again.
In a character's transformation journey, avoidance can hint at what events have already happened without actually telling the reader about them. For example:
Jean is planning a cross-country road trip for her bestie's wedding on the West Coast, and she'll have to drive several 15-hour stints to get there in time. When a co-worker asks why she doesn't just fly, she shrugs it off and says she likes driving.
But in the scene, you'd write her body language in a way that tells the reader that there's more to this situation. There's a reason Jean is avoiding being in an airplane. We may not know what it is yet, but as her character arc unfolds, this early sign of avoidance tells us there's a richer history there.
Earlier, I said that #6 on this list might surprise you. If you've studied writing technique or worked with a professional editor, you've probably been told to avoid flashbacks as a way to show backstory.
But when used properly, backstory flashbacks can be a powerful tool for conveying emotion. Flashbacks themselves aren't necessarily a sign of lazy writing. But you do need to be careful about where and when you use them and how much page time the flashback scene spends exploring events outside your story's main timeline.
Flashbacks don't need to be long, indulgent affairs that derail chapters. You can show little glimpses of backstory in as few as 2-3 sentences. For example:
Rain pounded the window, the night outside as dark as a tomb. The hairs on Jace's arms stood on end as cold crept through the brittle glass, an unwelcome reminder of a long-ago night as grim as this one. A blade at their throat, the pinch of flesh splitting. A voice in their ear, its dulcet tones a cruel promise. "All you have to do is tell the truth." A flash of lightning jerked Jace back to the now.
The italicized sentences above give us just enough detail to understand not just that Jace has experienced trauma, but also intuit some small nuances about the haunting nature of that trauma and the physical circumstances (the storm) that still trigger the memories.
Don't be afraid to use flashbacks strategically. Just don't lean on them as a crutch, and always keep your reader's attention span in mind when you use this technique.
Comments and questions
Do you already use any of these techniques to show backstory? Did any of my suggestions surprise you? Do you have any other techniques that work well for you or backstory ideas that you want to share? Leave a comment below and we'll chat!