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There are many different ways for a writer to provide information about a character's backstory, for example:

  • Flashbacks: The reader reads the scene as if transported back through time.
  • Memories: The reader remains in the same pov + tense but through the character's perspective they view what once was.
  • Dreams: Similar to a flashback but happens during sleep and certain facts could be incorrect or bizarre.
  • Stories: The character recounts their backstory to another person.

How to do each of these in the best way possible? And when use and not use them? What effect do each of these have on the reader?

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    I think this is a good question, but its very broad. I anticipate you'll get better answers if you break up this question into separate subjects, one on each method.
    – EDL
    Commented May 2 at 21:03
  • All the elements in the question have something in common and an answer can be given for all of them (see my answer). I therefore oppose the close vote.
    – Ben
    Commented May 3 at 4:46

2 Answers 2

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Contrary to the close votes, I believe that this question can be summarily answered, because all of these elements are essentially the same: They are brief sub-narratives embedded into the main story.

The problem with sub-narratives – prologue, backstory, memories, side-quests, news reports of things taking place elsewhere, infodumps, flashbacks, dreams, myth, legends, and stories of the fictional world – is that all of them bring the main story to a halt and require of the reader that he or she let go of the tension and concern the main story has evoked in them and find interest in something they currently don't care about.

When I read a love story and all I yearn for is that they finally kiss and I am strung-out by all the obstacles that thwart my yearning, I simply don't care at all about what the characters dream or what their childhood was like or what their mom does in California, meanwhile. It is irritating and annoying when the author forces me to waste my precious time and limited energy on boring interludes that halt the progress of what I'm so invested in.

All side-narratives can be presented in one single subordinate clause: "She dreamed of wolves." "As a child he was beaten." "While mom had an affair in Calfornia, ..." "Images of the torturer flashed before his eyes." "God created man on the sixth day." There is rarely a good reason to expand these into their own separate sub-narratives. All the information that the readers need can easily be provided alongside the main narrative – and most of the time more extensive information isn't really necessary at all. You can leave it to the reader to supplement the missing parts. Personally, I never read prologues, dream sequences, songs embedded in novels etc. I always skip them. But you might not be writing for me.

The answer, to your question, therefore is:

  • How do you feel about these sub-narratives yourself? Do you enjoy reading them? You are a representative of your target audience. Do not write anything that you do not like to read.
  • What is the convention in your genre? Are you writing sprawling epic fantasy, where side-narratives of all kind are something the readers actively seek and enjoy? Or are you writing a fast-paced thriller where readers want things to happen and move forward?

If you feel you need or want to incorporate more extensive information into a non-epic, more action-oriented narrative, you can do this in an interactive manner. For example, show how one character tells another character of her dreams: how the listener reacts to the narrative, what thoughts and emotions go on inside the dream teller as she recounts her dreams and observes the reactions of her listener, how the telling of the dream changes the relationship between teller and listener, and what actions and consequences the dream and the telling provoke. That is, you write the telling of the dream as an action that drives an aspect of the main story forward (in the example, the relationship).

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The best of these four is stories related, briefly, to another character. Briefly because it must be in a realistic manner, such stories are seldom more than half a page.

The reason is that stories can be woven into the present tense of the story, as something to do on a walk, or waiting for transportation (or being transported), or going to sleep around the fire, or doing chores with another.

In fact often we introduce a realistic boring task (one that makes sense at this point in the story) just so one character can relate a story like this, to fill in some backstory.

The reason we use stories is they don't interrupt the timeline in the story, and seem more realistic than memories or dreams.

Flashbacks are sometimes used, but only for very dramatic or traumatic memories. And even then, these flashbacks can seem contrived.

In general, one character telling a story to another is the least objectionable, because it doesn't really interrupt the longer narrative, it can be woven into the longer narrative in a way that seems natural and realistic.

The story telling itself can be relatively dispassionate; relating something they experienced. Or it can be emotional, something that happened that still affects them, makes them angry, or sad, or feel guilty, or determined to correct a wrong, etc.

The story told should serve some story purpose, of course, it should be plot relevant (which includes personal relationship relevant). It should not just be an info-dump.

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