The Story Arc: delivering backstory #amwriting

Many writers who managed to write the entire story arc of their novel during November are now going back and looking at what they have written. This can be a dangerous moment in the life of your book.

Info DumpIn my last post, I talked about the good and bad aspects of two editing programs that I am familiar with, the things they do and don’t help us identify in our work. One more thing these wonderful programs can’t help us with is identifying bloated backstory.

Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and flatten the story arc. They block the doors from one scene to the next.

Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. We write the story of our characters’ present moments, no matter what narrative tense we are using. Each character emerges from our minds with a personality. That personality was formed in some way by an unwritten past.

That history shaped the characters even though it isn’t written, and at first, we don’t consciously think about it. We open a document and start writing—we envision our characters with unique personalities the moment they step onto the first page.

At some point, we realize that a bit of backstory is needed. But how much, and how should we dole it out?

This is where it gets dicey. In the revision process, it’s tempting to inform the reader of this history by placing blocks of information in the first pages. It seems logical: before a reader can understand this thing, they need to know this other thing.

We can provide the reader with the backstory in several ways:

  • In conversation.
  • Memory/flashbacks
  • A brief recap of events

Each of these methods is both good and bad. While a certain amount of backstory is necessary for character and plot building, too much outright telling halts the momentum, freezes the real-time story in its tracks.

The opening paragraphs must be active. The first lines must step onto the stage in a way that feels original, informative, and engaging. The passages that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening lines.

Before we dump information, we should consider what must be accomplished in each scene and allow the backstory to inform the reader only when it’s necessary to advance the plot.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADLook at the first scene of your manuscript. Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

Dialogue is the easiest way to dole out information.

It is also a great way to fall into an info dump.

Don’t allow conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition detailing unimportant fluff just to fill up space.

“Jack, remember when you nearly blew up the ship? Remember how you spent two weeks in the brig?”

“Yes, Jill. That meant you were one gun short to save the day. I almost lost the war for you, but you prevailed. I’m lucky to be your sidekick.”

“Well, Jack, what we’re dealing with this time has nothing to do with that. I’m just pointing out the obvious.”

We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined’ as a medical expression indicating the patient has died. A story arc can flatline in two ways:

  • The pauses become halts, long passages of haphazard info dumps that have little to do with the action.
  • The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.

One way to avoid a flatlined story arc is through character interaction. Your characters briefly discuss what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Then, they bravely muck on to the next event.

Another way is to insert short moments of introspection between the action. Our character’s thoughts offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story.

Don’t ramble on, either in conversation or introspection. If you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward or close the book.

When they are brief but informational, these moments open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are. Their introspection illuminates their fears and strengths.

It shows that our characters have a sense of self.

The problem with conveying the backstory is that timing and pacing are essential. The moment to mention it in passing is when the character needs that information to make decisions as they go forward. If the character doesn’t need to know it, neither does the reader.

That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

In the most gripping narratives I have read, character introspection is brief but delivers crucial information. Internal monologues are featured but are kept minimal, only addressing what is essential. They serve to illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in time.

So, conversation and introspection are where we only deliver information not previously discussed and that the reader needs to know at that moment. Repetition is monotonous and pads the word count with fluff.

I suggest you don’t stop the action with a prolonged recap of previous adventures. It’s all right to work in a brief mention. However, if the events were detailed in a previous book in that series, the reader will probably be aware of the history. As a reader, I can say that a longwinded rant about things I already know does not keep my interest.

No matter the genre, in all stories, complications create tension, and information is a reward.

A trick I have found for whittling down info dumps is this: look at the word count.

to dole out phrasal verbI look at each conversation and assess how many words are devoted to each character’s statement and response. Then, when I come to a passage that is inching toward a monologue, I ask myself, “what can be cut that won’t affect the flow of the story or gut the logic of the plot?”

Even with all the effort I apply to it, my editor will find places to shave off the unnecessary length.

Sometimes we write brilliantly, and those moments give us hope when we churn out less than stellar prose. Weeding that garden of words is not easy, but readers will be glad you tried.


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2 responses to “The Story Arc: delivering backstory #amwriting

  1. When I read, I’ll often skim over sections that seem not to add value to a story. Occasionally, that means I’ll have to go back because something later doesn’t make sense, but usually I’m OK to have glossed over a description or rambling dialogue.
    When I write, it is usually concise, which explains why I write short stories, and now novellas.

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