Back-story happens as an author writes the tale. In my early works I left the back-story in, not realizing how it interfered with the flow of the story. Now I am rewriting my first published novel, removing the info dumps and using the skills I have developed in writing my last four novels to tell the story through scenes and dialogue.
Sometimes writing is like pulling a rabbit out of my hat–Voila!!! And there it is, the best scene I’ve ever written. I see it fully formed in my head and it falls out of my fingers as if I were seeing it before me.
The spring thaw was heralded by the hissing of rain on the frozen fir trees. Five men swathed in heavy cloaks rode miserable horses north, braving the eternal damp of a chill April morning, riding through snow heavy with slush, splashing through myriad puddles as the snowy landscape of the northern winter slowly melted under the assault of the spring rains.
Other times, it takes days and hundreds of failed attempts to figure out what it was I really wanted to say, what that one crucial paragraph needs to tell the reader in as few words as is possible.
The older merchant’s face darkened at the mention of the prince’s name and quickly looking over his shoulder at the other guests in the common room, he hushed his sons. “We’ll have no more mention of them at this table. If the wrong person overhears such talk we’ll all end our days in our own beds with our throats slit!”
Getting the back-story into the tale without spewing pages of detail is critical. In order for the reader to understand the action, they must understand the back-story. However, long info-dumps are no longer the fashion–the days of Herman Melville and J.R.R. Tolkien are gone: the modern reader has a leaner taste in literature.
Thus the author must find ways to insert the back-story in such a way the reader is intrigued.
I’ve lately attempted to read several tales where the authors have been humiliated in their writing groups by the snarky guru (you know the one I am talking about) to the point they now put no back-story at all into their tale. The jealous, rudely sarcastic diva has accomplished his mission–once again he’s made a more talented author afraid to write.
Back-story is critical, because action must happen for a reason. When things happen for no reason at all, the story is nothing but random, senseless actions. Without back-story we don’t care about the protagonist, no matter how handsome and witty he is.
An author once told me he put no back-story in because he wanted the reader to find out what was happening at the same time the protagonist discovered it. I found his work to be random, and senseless, which was too bad, because just a little insight into WHY the action was happening would have made it so much more interesting.
When I read a book, I become involved with the characters if there is a sense of history, if I want to know this person. Having some knowledge of what makes this person tick intrigues me. Why did Maldred order Geoffrey murdered? A snippet here and there, artfully inserted into to the scenery and the dialogue will inform the reader in such a way they don’t realize they are being informed.
Thus the author must craft the tale.
According to Jon Sprunk at Tor.Com: “Most aspects of back-story can be inferred by the reader. For example, if your main character is a cop, most readers will understand that she knows police procedure, the laws of her jurisdiction, and how to handle a firearm. You don’t need to walk us through every day of her academy training to tell us this.”
A good way to dole out the back-story and still leave the reader’s imagination intact is to write in such a way the information is slipped into the story in small chucks to spread it out.
Having characters discuss important events of the past is another effective way to get the information to the reader. However, you must use this tool wisely so as to not to fall into the trap of using dialogue to tell the story.
It’s a balancing act. This is where the craft of writing comes into play. We learn through writing and from getting proper feedback on our work.Writing is like cooking–experience will give you some idea of how much seasoning is too much.
A writing group, whether online or in your community is an excellent place to begin sharing your work and getting feedback. Don’t be afraid of criticism, because even the snarky guru has a point–he just has a bad way of displaying it. Also, don’t expect to ever write to THEIR satisfaction, because it won’t happen. However, you can learn a great deal there if you choose to.
A great book for new writers is Stephen King’s On Writing-A Memoir of the Craft. He tells us of his own life up to his well-known near-death experience, which is gripping in itself. But more importantly he tells us about the craft of writing, and how to develop the tools you will need, and the skills to use those tools.
Back-story is like perfume. A hint is awesome, and makes you curious.
Too much overwhelms the senses and drives away the reader.
Write for yourself, but write as well as you can. And never stop growing as a writer.
8 responses to “Crafting the tale”
I was at a two-day workshop in Calgary in August, and I was unanimously dumped on about my info-dumps…..
It is a little more difficult with science fiction to be subtle, but I’m working on it.
Writing is F & F (frustrating and fascinating)!
…but that’s why we try.
Oh my, Roxanne. I feel your pain! Hell hath no fury like the mob-mentality of a writers workshop! I happen to enjoy what I have read of your work, so keep on keepin’ on!
I relate to this post so much. Every time I go through my book I take out more back story. Even if it’s pretty, it’s still info dump!
@Johanna – the hard part for me is I feel so married my beautiful prose! The key is to not only write a “hack and slash” tale as some of my sword and sorcery tales are, but to able to hack and slash away the forest in order to be able to see the trees! I have well over 250,00 words invested in building my current work in progress, of which less than half will make their way to my editor. Of those words, I will lose another 5,000 to 10,000! So I do feel your pain! But I haven’t found your work to be overly rife with backstory- instead I find your work entertaining and stylish!
I like to build scenes like sandwiches. Bread and meat is the current scene and its action. The veggies are relevant info that expands the scene. The cheese is something frivolous that nevertheless adds something to the situation. Thinking/speaking/acting leads to memory of something related, which leads to present scene thinking/speaking/acting, That’s how people move through their days. Then I make another sandwich. That way, readers will (as I calculate) swallow backstory info along with the main plot without suffering indigestion. I provide antacid in the epilogue.
@Stephen–that’s a good analogy of the way to insert necessary information into the body of the story without bogging it down. I would have expected nothing less of you!
I like the sandwich analogy! And the use of great imagery/language is the seasoning/relish that gives it an extra zing!
Thank you for visiting, Marjorie!