Hi there, I’m planning a story in which the protagonists will spend semi-regular stretches of time in prison. Since they don’t have agency during these times, I’m thinking of using them to explore each character’s backstory: specifically the supernatural elements that affect them all and explain why they’re the protagonists. Would you recommend this be done through dialogue or through flashback? Or would I actually be better off just summarizing that time and having the backstories come up later?Kai
This depends on the precise role the backstory plays in the story at hand. I have an article on this that I recommend reading, but I also have some tips here. Since you have multiple protagonists and you’re considering flashbacks, I assume you either have multiple POVs or you’re using omniscient narration. Given that, you have three basic options for conveying backstory:
- Exposition in the character’s POV. The advantage of this option is that it’s very efficient. If the backstory enhances the audience’s experience but doesn’t move the plot forward, this will tell the audience what they need to know quickly.
- Flashbacks. This is the most immersive option, but it takes a lot more words. Sometimes flashbacks of only a couple paragraphs long are appropriate, but that’s only enough time for a single moment. A full flashback scene will slow down the movement of the story and often makes the audience feel impatient and bored. This can be worth it if what it holds is really revelatory. Even in those cases, you’ll need to ask if this revelatory information should have been disclosed earlier.
- Dialogue. This will add more words, and it’s not going to be immersive. What you get in return is character interaction. In the right cases, that can be used to keep the plot moving, making the time well spent.
How will sharing their background with the supernatural enhance the audience experience?
If this background will help readers sympathize with and get attached to the protagonists, the big question is whether that should be done earlier. It doesn’t always need to be early, though. For instance, if you have a minor antagonist that you want to bring over to Team Good, you might hold off on the backstory until you’re ready to start their redemption arc, at which point you’d offer the sympathetic backstory to get your audience invested in their redemption. Since these are all protagonists, if you have one that’s your main character, you might start with just their origin story and then add in other sympathetic backstories once the main character gets to know that person. However, in many cases the story will be more enjoyable if the audience is attached to all of the protagonists.
For a sympathy-inducing backstory, some people insist you should do a flashback to enhance emotion, but I’ve found that evocative exposition can offer most of that without making readers impatient and bored, so that’s what I recommend.
If the background can be used to build relationships between your protagonists in significant ways, that could make it a great match for dialogue. This also works really well with having periodic prison time, because you can use some prison scenes to take a break from the action and advance your relationship arcs. But to do this, the information should be more important to the relationship than just “I’m glad I got to know you a little better.” Maybe one protagonist is angry with another for doing something that put the team in jeopardy. In prison, they argue about it. The person who took the questionable action reveals a backstory that demonstrates why doing this thing was so important to them. This allows the angry protagonist to forgive them.
Conveying backstory via dialogue could also be used to forward external arcs if the backstory contains a clue that the character missed. For instance, maybe the team encounters a villain that features in one of the backstories. In prison, the character who’s encountered the villain recalls what happened. Another character picks up on a detail from the backstory, and translates that into a useful insight about the villain. The protagonists make new plans for what they’ll do when they get out of prison based on this information.
If the backstory is a plot reveal that the character didn’t already know, then it’s actually worth a flashback. So let’s say a protagonist has suppressed a bad memory. Then they have an encounter with a villain that’s strangely familiar, but the protagonist doesn’t remember how they know this villain. Once in prison, they think about it some more, and the memory resurfaces. The memory reveals something really important about the villain that changes the protagonist’s plans going forward. Please know that this doesn’t work if the protagonist already remembers their backstory, because the flashback won’t change what the protagonist does. At that point it’s just a meta mystery.
If the backstory is just so readers can understand what’s happening in the story, use exposition, and convey it when they need to know it. If it doesn’t do any of the things I’ve mentioned, you might want to leave it out altogether.
If your characters are in and out of prison all the time and you summarize it every time, my concern would be that the prison parts wouldn’t feel real enough. However, that’s not insurmountable. Showing how being in prison impacted them and how time has passed since they went in should help. Still, even if you don’t show off backstory while they’re in prison, you can still have a few scenes there while the characters are advancing relationships and strategizing what they’ll do later.
I hope that gives you an idea of what to do. Happy writing!
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Comments on How Should I Fill In Backstory?
The thing I would worry about is that if the main characters are in prison and have no agency, will these sections still be interesting. Will there still be tension, momentum, etc.?
It sounds like you might want the backstories to provide the interest during this time. That sounds dangerously close to interludes
And the more interesting your plot the worse these sections will be. I can picture the reader thinking “Not another prison scene! I wanna see them fight the monsters!”
I’d say, either have the MC’s continue the throughline even in prison, or summarize. If they all have different parts of the puzzle and need to share, then that is part of the throughline
I would also add that being imprisoned don’t equals to being deprived of agency. The first rule of a prisoner is trying to escape be it by actually escaping or trying to appeal or reduce their sentence. And it don’t matters if it is a regulated prison or a hostage situation. They can also have to actually do something in the prison to advance the plot.
This is extremely helpful because I do have a character I’m working on that spends time in prison and agency has been a big concern. Other characters around him naturally have more, so in some instances I’ve been having him take small actions within his limited ability to act that are linchpin moments to the overall drama, whether it’s obvious to him or not. It’s fun leaning into him thinking he’s completely powerless, which seems to help draw attention to how his actions drive everything forward. Aside from the great advice here, I tried to read every piece of fiction I could find that has imprisoned main characters (Count of Monte Cristo and The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner come to mind).