When we talk about backstory it can be easy to assume that it is explicit along the lines of ‘When I were a lad…’ (a little colloquialism for you). However, backstory can implied through what a character says, how they say it, and what they don’t say. The final one might sound odd in an article about dialogue but there’s things people don’t talk about, verbal sleight of hand to avoid things and questions that are asked but never answered. A common problem in writing dialogue is that writers forget that the unsaid can be as, or sometimes more, powerful than the said.
Imagine a couple who sit at a table together and never speak a word to each other. They have said nothing but they have told us everything about the unhappiness of their relationship in that moment. I say ‘in that moment’ because they might not be speaking because they’ve had an argument rather than because they’re permanently unhappy. This can be the strength, and sometimes the downfall, of implication, we want to know the answer so we read on hoping to find it but if not enough questions are answered it can be disappointing.
It isn’t only through not speaking that we can imply the backstory of a character but also through what people say and how they say it. Once again we can come to dialect, a character may portray themselves one way and then, occasionally, they may drop in some slang or phrasing that doesn’t match the background they’re portraying. This trick often appears in crime fiction where one of the suspect’s background unravels based on misspeaking, Agatha Christie used the technique more than once.
There’s also the suggestion behind what they say; the obvious example would be the double-entendre, the seemingly innocuous phrase that has sexual implications, but this can be applied in other ways. Carefully worded phrase could be taken at face value or can imply a history. I’ll use a quote from one of my stories so it’s easy to find in situ, so if we consider Left in The Library from Victorian Mistress where Charlotte says:
‘Take it as a compliment. I’m so relaxed around you I don’t feel the need to swing round and punch you in the face. Or kick you in the balls, quite effective as I recall.’
The latter part of the quote conspicuously refers to some past incident while in the first part Charlotte could be making a joke or she could be referring to something in her past. (Regular readers might guess at what but I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.) Charlotte hasn’t said ‘I might’ve punched you in the face because…’ but a reader could infer a because. As it’s an implication a reader might not assume what I was thinking of when I wrote it but it doesn’t matter, they can get involved in the story by filling in the spaces and building up their own idea of Charlotte’s past.
In this way stories can be interactive experiences; maybe they’ll be disappointed with what I reveal, maybe they’ll think it’s better, maybe they’ll stick with the own version over what I reveal. Alternatively, I could imply more and allow the reader to make up their own backstory for Charlotte, which may differ from mine. Revealing or continuing to imply are both valid methods, it entirely depends upon the story you want to write.
Balancing implied and explicit backstory in dialogue, and narrative in general, can help prevent over-telling. By the time the reader reads our finished story it may be full of subtle references that we added during numerous edits so it’s unlikely a reader will pick them all up in one read through. Or they may see things in a story we didn’t intend or realise we’d written or interpret those we did differently. The art of implication can be a tricky thing to master but it can also help prevent explicitly putting too much backstory in a story.
If you fancy testing your skills try assembling Charlotte’s backstory from what she says, and doesn’t say.
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