A question was recently posed to me about a creative way to insert facts and information from the past into a story. Readers don’t want an information dump, so how does a writer provide the pertinent details without a lot of backstory? After I offered up a few suggestions (I hope they helped!), I thought some might be worth sharing.
Invite a Character From the Past
When you invite a character from the past into your story, they will naturally bring along experiences and information that they can share with your present-day characters (and the reader). Where are they from? What are they wearing? How do they speak? Perhaps there’s a striking resemblance to someone in the present, and they may have a story to share about where they’ve been/what they’ve been doing until the moment they showed up on the doorstep (maybe no one knew they existed until now). He/she may be the result of a forbidden love affair that no one knew about. Why show up now? Are they a long-lost friend? An enemy hell-bent on seeking revenge? Invite them in with all of their physical and emotional baggage!
A Treasured Object
An isolated, seemingly-innocent object can be a key to the past and a way to creatively insert information from the past into your story. Maybe none of your characters thought about it before, but where did that beautiful paperweight come from? That necklace? Or the military medal that no one can decipher? Seemingly inconsequential objects can be a mechanism to insert information from the past into the present. Does your present-day character discover a letter mentioning someone they’ve never heard of? Expand on this idea and have fun with it. Are there initials carved in that ancient oak that don’t match anyone’s in the present? Does one of your characters overhear a secretive conversation about a person, object, or event from the past?
A Visit With a Twist
A visit to a familiar location (i.e. family retreat) can unearth something from the past. Maybe a local resident tells one of your characters the day he/she arrives that they were sure they saw you last week. That wasn’t you? How can that be? Gossip swirls about something or someone in the past that directly relates to one of your present-day characters. What happened there fifty years ago that surfaces and creates chaos for the characters in your story?
A trip somewhere new can be a key to revealing secrets of the past. A vacation to a new location may unearth unexpected details your present-day character could unwittingly discover. Something like a genealogy project has the potential to reveal any number of skeletons hiding in the closet of your present-day character! Why did they choose to visit that particular location? Were they drawn by some unknown force? The result of the discovery of an object or a clue? A snippet of a conversation? A tattered letter found in the attic?
Giving your reader a glimpse into the past from improbable and surprising sources will give you, the writer, the opportunity to provide them with the details you need to share with them. Drop those creative and exciting bits in where they’ll do their part, and you’ll have a story readers won’t want to put down!