Last week I was reading a novel, and the author had pages and pages explaining the characters’ backstories from their horrible childhoods to their abusive relationships. The poor guy desperately needed an editor. Needless to say, I didn’t finish the book.

Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, backstory is always challenging. In real life, people don’t blurt out their deepest, darkest secrets. And having the characters talk about their (usually) tortured past is hard to make organic.

Backstory as a Mystery

The key to revealing backstory is to think about it like a mystery.

Let your characters talk about their past in a way that feels like they’re dancing around each other’s secrets. It’s not about stating facts (“When I was 12, I moved to the city”). Instead, make it unusual and emotional. (“The first time I saw a skyscraper, I thought it was going to eat me up”).

Figuring out the heart of your characters is unraveling a mystery, captivating the audience. This gradual unveiling, where the backstory emerges in drips and drabs, transforms passive viewers or readers into active detectives, piecing together the puzzle of who a character truly is and why they do what they do.

How to be Mysterious

The characters’ past directly influence their present situation. As the story unfolds, the reasons behind their actions become clearer, weaving backstory into the story organically. This technique not only hooks the reader but also builds curiosity around the character’s history.

Create Intrigue: Just like a good mystery, a character’s backstory should spark questions. Why is the character afraid of commitment? What led them to take this journey? These questions drive the story forward, as each revealed detail adds another layer.

Reveal Through Action and Reaction: Characters don’t need to verbalize their past for it to influence their present. How they react to situations, make decisions, and interact with others hint at their backstory. A character who flinches at a loud noise or averts their gaze at the mention of a place provides clues to their past.

Pace the Reveal: By ​revealing backstory gradually​, you create a sense of progression and discovery. Each piece of the puzzle should come when it has the most emotional impact or relevance to the story’s current events. This keeps the audience on their toes, eager to learn more.

Use Misdirection: Not all clues have to point to the truth. Misdirection can significantly influence how backstory is revealed. A character’s actions or statements might lead the audience to make assumptions about their past, which are later turned on their head as new information comes to light.

Other Characters: Their relationships, conversations, and conflicts with the main character can bring past secrets to the surface. An old friend or a new adversary might mention events or traits from the past, providing key pieces of the backstory mystery with no need of direct exposition.

The goal is to reveal backstory like peeling an onion, layer by layer, rather than dumping information all at once. Keep your audience guessing. Keep your story flowing with your characters as fascinating puzzles waiting to be solved.

In both screenplays and novels, this technique requires a delicate balance of withholding and revealing information. It challenges you as the creator to think strategically about what to reveal, when to reveal it, and how it impacts the overall story. The result? A story that lingers in the minds and hearts of your audience long after the last piece of the puzzle is solved.

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