In my novel, Matt's girlfriend Ella gets kidnapped and Matt is held responsible by the kidnappers. As it wasn't for ransom but as a revenge of something Matt did. And then Matt storms into my MC's office and there he explains how much innocent he is and starts telling why there is no reason for Ella to be kidnapped as he is basically a very nice guy.

At this point how do I introduce Matts back story in a show not tell the way? Like instead of Matt saying, "I haven't done anything wrong", how should the backstory come here?

Do I have any option here other than Matt telling his own back story?


4 Answers 4


The bare minimum is not the backstory

The bare minimum that you need to show is not the backstory, but whether the MC is convinced about Matt's good character.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle does that by having Sherlock Holmes explain to Watson why he believes the good nature of the person they just talked to. Quite often the explanation is based on some cues that derive from the characters' backstory: a certain posture, or certain signs on the hands could indicate a certain profession, or the use of certain terms may indicate a good education, or a specific tattoo may indicate having travelled to exotic destinations. Sherlock Holmes has a way to connect these cues so that we the readers get a glimpse of the character backstory without the need to read it whole. In addition, by doing so, the conversation focuses on the details that are relevant to build tension relative to the plot, rather than forcing an information dump, pumped by unnecessary "I don't believe it" lines.

Showing the backstory

If you need to show the backstory anyway, rather than showing through the eyes of your MC, then consider spreading it over the course of the novel. Matt can say whatever he wants, but unless he is a great actor, he will let both his habits and his past slip through his actions and look. It is an extended version of the Sherlock Holmes summary. He may claim to be a construction worker, but his hands have thin fingers like a musician, and his working boots are clean to a mirror. He may say that music is his hobby, and display a perfect pitch in that random occasion in which he recalls the tones of a dial phone.

The advantage of this approach is that you may make a few claims about Matt at the beginning of the novel, which foreshadow details that will be relevant later in the story for the progression of the plot. In this way you can keep the conversation between Matt and the MC to the bare minimum: "tell me the problem" - "tell me the facts" - "I'll pretend to believe you for now".

Showing the backstory in a dialogue

In the extreme case in which you really need to show the backstory in a dialogue between Matt and the MC and still wish to avoid an information dump, then consider alternative options:

  • MC and Matt have a common acquaintance. MC recalls some stories, mentions them in passing, skips to the next relevant fact.

  • Matt is sufficiently well known to be mentioned in the press, on the media. MC may know him. Someone close to MC may know him, and mention "are you that Matt that is famous because of...?"

  • MC has asked his "connection" to give him a file on Matt. The dialogue alternates between direct speech and short flashbacks of what the MC has just read.

  • Matt is in great distress. As he recounts his backstory he skips jumping between the parts that he thinks may be relevant, and even these are cut abruptly as he realizes that there may be another piece of the backstory that is relevant: "In the summer of '74 I went to Nevada for a .... actually, now that I think of it, in '76 I returned to Nevada for work. I went to the same place. And you know what? The lady at the reception was the same one that greeted me in New York one year ago!" and he may even slam his palm against the forehead as he suddenly begins to connect some of the dots. You can then use the MC to make him retell the relevant bits of it "I lost you in Nevada. What happened in 1976?"

  • Matt is not in great distress. MC can only sit comfortably, and listen. Make sure you switch from direct speech to indirect speech for a long-ish flashback. We have some great answers on Writing.SE on how to deal with these. E.g. "It is a long story," he said, and began telling of that trip to Nevada in 1974. He had just arrived at the hotel, and the lady at the reception... [This, however, would be the telling of the backstory, which you show in a flashback.]


Building on Amadeus's answer, what you want to avoid is your character monologuing his backstory.

Sometimes, a monologue can be done. If that story is gripping, and the scene is such that it makes sense for one character to be telling a story uninterrupted. For example, if two characters are sitting in a pub, and one recounts this amazing adventure he had. Then, it's a form of story within a story. It is then structured accordingly, treated as a complete unit, with its own "show don't tell" etc. Other characters interrupting with meaningless "no way" comments don't add nothing to this type of setup.

But in your scenario, the setting isn't a calm pub scene. You have a conflict between two characters. So use that conflict. Have the characters argue, have one character disbelieve the story, try to catch the other one lying; while the other would be trying to convince the first of his truth, at the same time maybe not wanting to reveal everything. They might misunderstand each other, they might have partial and conflicting information, or misinformation, about certain events.

Conflict generates a dynamic setting. There's push and pull there. Play that to your advantage.

A scene from the last act of Verdi's La Forza del Destino is rather similar to the situation you're describing. (One character is looking for revenge, while the other pleads his innocence.) I'm linking here to a concert performance with no subtitles (but great singers), to give you an idea of the dynamics of such a scene. With the general feel of the scene in hand, you can fill in the words. https://youtu.be/Lom_QoOpd8s?t=221


If your MC is some kind of detective or police officer or whatever, somebody that addresses crime, and Matt is seeking help from them, then you probably have to have Matt explain and prove he is a good guy.

The MC is unlikely to just believe whatever Matt says; a detective doesn't live long if they can be so easily convinced of a lie.

So your MC is going to be suspicious, and ask questions. Also, detectives are tough in the sense of not being distracted by emotional clients, whether they are in grief or angry or anything else. Matt cannot just insist on help without proving, to some extent, he is sincere and deserves the help of the MC.

So whatever backstory there is, it is the MC's job to extract it, and decide whether the girlfriend really is in danger and whether he believes enough of Matt's story to take some first actions, investigate, and see where to go from there.

As an author, you need to put yourself in the mindset of the MC, who doesn't want to be tricked, and is somewhat cynical about everybody's ability to be honest with themselves. Then some guy shows up and tries to convince him this girl Ella got kidnapped for no reason at all, a big misunderstanding ...

Riiiiighhht. That's gonna take a lot of explaining, about what the kidnappers think happened, and why they think it deserves revenge, and why they didn't just kill Ella (if it is just revenge why hold her, why not cut her head off and leave it on his doorstep?), and what Matt has done to correct it (or exacerbate it).

And in the end the MC may not believe Matt's claim of innocence, but might believe Ella is innocent and kidnapped, and proceed on the basis of saving a damsel in distress.


This is really going to depend on the details of your story. For conversation's sake, I'm going to assume that the story is about missing funds at a charity. Not because this has anything to do with your story, but because I don't want to try to work around an unknown plot.

Let's presume that the kidnappers have just communicated with Matt. He goes to the main character to share. He tells the MC that the kidnappers claim that Matt convinced Ella to embezzle funds from a charity. Matt says that this isn't true. Not only didn't he suggest anything of the kind, he doesn't believe that Ella embezzled any funds.

The natural thing would be for the MC to investigate this. What is the MC to Ella and Matt? A police officer? A private detective? An amateur sleuth? Ella's family member? A casual acquaintance? If any of the first three, the MC would investigate personally. If not, the MC might hire a private detective to do the investigating.

If the MC is investigating, you can show by showing the investigation. If the MC hires someone, then you can show the conversations with that person. It's possible that you may maintain reasonable doubt throughout. Finally, at the end of the story, Ella is free (or dying or whatever). Show with a flashback from Ella, who presumably knows whether or not she embezzled funds and if so, whether or not Matt knew.

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