Reader Question: When is the best time to reveal a character’s backstory?

Key character revelations. When? Where? How?

AlBaraa asked:

Is there a name for this sort of dialog where the character reveals a personal story of themselves.

The effect/impact reminds me of the moment in saving private ryan where they’re in the church after storming the beach and the characters are telling some story of their past

When writing a story, when is the most appropriate time to implement this sort of dialog?

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You might generally call this exposition: “the act of expounding, setting forth, explaining.” The specific subset to which you’re referring is more accurately known as “backstory,” where a character provides their background-story.

When is the most appropriate time to do that? Well, consider the words of one screenwriter I know who has this sign at his desk: “Exposition equals death.” While certainly hyperbolic, there is an inherent element of truth in that statement because movies are at their core a visual medium. And two heads exchanging information does not, at least in theory, translate into visual storytelling.

My first instinct would be to say Act One is the best place to work in backstory. After all, Act One is where a writer introduces most if not all of the primary characters in their story. Readers expect the first 30 pages or so to have lots of information and background about not only characters, but also the story world, plot, etc. So if the backstory in question is merely information that is important for the reader to know to understand who a character is, best to knock it out in the first part of the script.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said about delaying certain kinds of backstory elements, particularly those that reveal a different, unusual side to a character. If you set them up so a reader thinks of them as being this way, then later in the story they confess to something in their background which now makes us think of them as being that way, that can be a plus. So there’s one reason why backstory can work in Act Two.

But what about a mystery solved? A question about a character that persists through Act One and Act Two, then is finally answered at the story’s end? For example, a movie like Ordinary People:

The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.

Why is the son (Conrad as played by Timothy Hutton) riddled with guilt? That is revealed in this scene in Act Three, answering the question “what was the one wrong thing you did”:

Another example: Saving Private Ryan. After continually declining to offer any information about his background, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) takes this moment right before the Final Struggle in Act Three to provide some backstory:

               EXT. BRIDGE - NIGHT

That’s backstory. Delivered late in the story. Way late. But it works. Because it provides us a new understanding and deep appreciation of what Miller has managed to pull off — an English teacher from Pennsylvania guiding a handful of men to fend off one German assault after another, and to protect Private Ryan at all costs.

Check out the scene from the movie. See how much it changed from the script version above. The context of the backstory revelation switched from relative calm to one soldier holding a gun on another solider.

So what’s the right answer? As often with screenwriting, there isn’t one. But here are three points to consider:

  • If you need to provide backstory for a reader to understand the essence of a character, then go ahead and get it out of the way in Act One.
  • If you want to provide a twist where you shift the perception of a character through the revelation of their backstory, Act Two can work.
  • If you’ve set up a mystery and can sustain it effectively throughout the story, you can pay it off by revealing backstory in Act Three.
  • But whatever you do, make sure the backstory isn’t boring. Make it compelling, surprising, revelatory, gripping… never boring.

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