Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. The past is what forms what we see as the here-and-now and shapes the characters. Because they have a history, they are fully developed the moment they step onto the first page.
New writers know the backstory is important. They sometimes feel it’s necessary to inform the reader by placing a wall of history at the novel’s beginning. It seems like logical thinking: “Before you can understand this, you need to know this.”
Don’t drop the history in the first five pages. Those are the pages that acquisition editors look at and decide whether or not to continue reading the submission. For those of us planning to go the indie route, those first five pages are what the prospective buyer sees in the “look inside” option when buying an eBook.
While the backstory is necessary for character and plot building, too much outright “telling” halts the momentum, freezes the real-time story in its tracks.
And most importantly, beginnings must be active. The first lines must step onto the stage in such a way that they are original, informative, and engaging.
The passages that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening pages.
Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and negate your hooks. They block the doors from one scene to the next.
So how do the professionals deliver the backstory and still sell books? First, they consider what must be accomplished in each scene and allow the backstory to inform the reader only when and if needed to advance the plot.
Look at the first scene of your manuscript. Ask yourself three questions.
- Who needs to know what?
- Why must they know it?
- How many words do you intend to devote to it?
Dialogue is the easiest way to dole out information, and it is also a great way to fall into an info dump.
Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue or internal monologues. We don’t want our conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition.
We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined’ as a medical expression indicating the patient has died. When the story arc is imbalanced, it can flatline in two ways:
- The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.
- The pauses become halts, long passages of random info dumps that have little to do with the action.
A good way to avoid a flatlined story arc is through character interaction. Your characters briefly discuss what is on their minds and bravely muck on to the next event.
Short moments of introspection offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story. If you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward or close the book.
These moments open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are. Their introspection shows how they really react and illuminates their fears and strengths.
It shows that our characters are self-aware.
Timing and pacing are essential. The moment to mention information in passing is when the character needs to know it in order to go forward. 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. Internal monologues are featured but are kept minimal, addressing only 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. Repetition is boring and pads the word count with fluff.
Consider the most popular genre: Romance novels. These things fly off the shelves. Why?
Because the path to love is never straightforward. It speeds up (a small reward), and then it is slowed (dangling the carrot). Then, it goes a little ahead (slightly larger reward) but is slowed (enticement) until finally, the two overcome the circumstances and things that have barred the way to their true happiness.
Romance novels average 50,000 to 70,000 words. In shorter novels, there is no room for backstory. Instead, information and backstory are meted out only as needed through conversations and internal dialogue/introspection.
All obstacles to the budding romance are followed by small rewards that keep the reader involved and make them determined to see the happy ending even more.
As a reader, I can say that a longwinded rant is not a reward.
This holds true in every book and story, no matter the genre: enticement, reward, enticement, reward. In all stories, complications create tension, and information is a reward.
The combination of those elements keeps the reader reading.
Right now, I am working on whittling info dumps out of my current manuscript. It’s difficult to see them in my own work, but one trick I have found is this: word count.
I 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 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, other times not so much. Sorting the diamonds from the fluff is hard, but your readers will be glad you made the effort.