Backstory: How to Avoid the Infodump

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, I love books and movies that manage to hide something, dropping clues until it all comes out.  It’s a great way to give the reader the backstory a morsel at a time and avoid an infodump.  I’ve written before about how Edward Bloor does it in Tangerine, but I saw a movie the other night that does an amazing job of telling us the main character’s back ground a bit at a time.


If you plan to see this movie, you’ve been warned.  When the movie starts, we meet John Wick as he staggers out of a totalled SUV and drops to the ground. He’s bloody and clutching his stomach.  Things look bad.  

Then we flash back to John Wick, happily married, romancing his wife and then she collapses in his arms.  We see him at her bedside when she dies in the hospital. And we see him at her funeral.

Somewhere in all of this, it may have been when he was getting ready for the funeral, we see a flash of his back, covered in an intricate tattoo.  That’s clue number one.

He’s cleaning up after the wake when a delivery arrives at the house.  His wife has had a puppy delivered so that he has something to love.

The next day he goes out to run errands, puppy in the passenger seat.  Filling up the car with gas, a man compliments his classic car and offers to buy it.  When Wick says no, the man says in Russian that everyone has a price.  Wick replies, also in Russian, that no everyone does not.  That’s clue number two.

That night, they break in and steal his car.  They beat him up and kill the puppy.

But when they take the car to the chop shop, the “manager” is clear. “That car belongs to John Wick.  Take it someplace else.”  That’s clue number three.

It turns out that one of the punks is son of a New York Russian mob boss.  When daddy finds out what jr has done, he beats the kid silly because his actions have called down John Wick, nicknamed Babayaga. “He’s the one we send after the Boogey Man.”  We are a third of the way through the movie before we find out who John Wick was and who he is about to be once again.  The director has strung us along with tiny clues, but we don’t mind because, though suble, they were there.

This won’t work with any old story but maybe it will work with something you have in the works.  How can you reveal the backstory one tantilizing clue at a time?  I have to say, John Wick has me rethinking one of my old manuscripts.  Maybe just maybe this would solve a few problems.


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