There was something in Mary Karr’s “The Art Of Memoir” that stuck with me.
I listened to this as an audiobook from the library so it’s difficult to quote exactly but the specifics are less important than the process. She mentioned searching for a scene from her life that showed an example of her father and, something. How he loved her or some other other characteristic.
Karr had a story, she had a sense of what was important about this angle on her history, and she was rooting around in her childhood for an event that would show the reader something relevant to the story.
This, I thought, is how fiction should be written. Root about in your world, in your character’s history, or in their present, for moments and scenes that make relevant statements about what you want to show to the reader.
There is a subtle difference between this versus being told to come up with the psychological source of your character’s anger or fear or love. For one, there are many existing possibilities and it’s a matter of picking the best one, which is how it should feel in fiction. For another, these fictional character histories are often written as internal narrative: reflective, lacking action, taking place as a dialog from the character to the reader.
As an example, I had three sections of backstory in a recent short story. I used some dialog to make it less dry and telling but they were largely internal narrative. As a writing exercise, I listed the important information of each section and for the first two I wrote scenes that would convey those same key points. With a little revision and some transition adjustments I swapped those in and the story came to life. The third section covered a longer period of time in fewer words, and once I had replaced the first two it was the only remaining section of static internal narrative so I left it as it was. I’ve seen the writing of Alice Munro quoted as examples of good telling, where she packs so much information into three or four sentences that would take paragraphs and paragraphs to convey it all with vignettes. I’m not to that level, but that is the ideal.
But I don’t think I would have written or chosen as good a moment or scene to write had I not first written myself into it, by writing it first as backstory, as largely internal narrative. Perhaps this is because I am a pantser and I needed to figure out the story by writing rather than by making notes or an outline.
So, figuring out what you want the reader to know is one thing and explaining it using internal narrative another, but it may be better yet if you go one step further and do what Karr did for her memoir: root around for a moment, a scene, a vignette that will allow the reader to see what you want them to know rather than telling them.