Tag Archives: background information

Fundamentals of Writing: delivering the backstory #amwriting

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.

bloatedExpositionLIRF06202021New 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.

  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, and it is also a great way to fall into an info dump.

strange thoughtsDon’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.

strange thoughts 2I 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.

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Bloated exposition and the power of the “No!”

 

Book- onstruction-signTwo-year-olds are awesome little balls of angst and joy. It’s either all happiness or all misery for them. I just spent the last two days babysitting my youngest grandson, who is two, while my daughter, a well-known musician, was in the recording studio. The dialogue between me and my grandson went something like this:

Me: “Would you like to eat dinner?”

2 yr old: “No dinner!”

Me: “Do you have to potty?”

2 yr old: “No Potty!”

Me: “Would you like ice-cream?”

2 yr old: “No ice-cream!”

It doesn’t matter what you ask the child–he is currently hardwired to say “NO!” to everything, no matter how badly he really wants it.  Everything is high drama and terrible tragedy for him–and his gut reaction to every question is driven by his newly acquired “power of the NO,”  a super-power that regularly goes to his head.

Unlike the two-year-old with his simple cut-and-dried answer for everything, we authors have a large amount of backstory that we are just sure the reader must know every minuscule detail of, and in order to avoid info dumps, we write conversations to do just that, so that the reader will not lack for information.

But this is where we authors need to exercise the power of the NO. It is also one of the hardest things we do–trying to decide what is crucial to the advancement of the plot and what could be done without. I am currently looking quite closely at one of my manuscripts, and I may cut an entire chapter that is only background. It’s awesome background, and I love this background–but when looked at with an independent eye, it doesn’t do anything but stall the forward momentum of my book.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those can become info dumps laced with useless fluff and are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. You are fortunate enough to be my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the awesomest gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition works in a novel is when both the reader and the character being spoken to do not know the information being artfully dumped.

dump no infoWhen reading, even dedicated readers will skip over large, unbroken blocks of words. Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I feel this goes double for dialogue.

Cut to the chase. In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Consider a phone conversation at work or when you’re in a hurry, and a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if they had insurance or if your friend will sue (unless you work for a legal firm and you’re fishing for business.)

There’s another important reason to avoid fluff in your dialogue besides the fact it makes a book more enjoyable:

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. In the ebook format, costs are minimal and it doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author that has to sell for more than $12.99 may not sell well. Remember, with a longer book, your costs are increased because until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and at most book-signings. You’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

Shakespeare_ICountMyselfFor an indie who writes fantasy, which tends to be longer books and is my genre, it’s most cost-effective for you to keep your work to between 90,000 and 120,000 words if you intend to print through CreateSpace, which prints my paper books. So, wise authors will avoid empty filler in their conversations at all costs.

Having said to keep it short, I know there are times when a character will have a long story to tell, and if it’s done right, it works. Usually, these are stories within stories, and they’re a bit tricky to do right. Deploy the facts, and go light on the fluff.

Remember, what worked in a Shakespeare monologue does not work in a dialogue between two people. Fictional dialogue is about give and take, meant to sound realistic but sharpened by the fact that each character needs something, and by the fact that their needs do not mesh. You won’t get two-page speeches if you remember to visualize your conversation.

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Don’t dump it-deploy it

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMost of my work takes place in  a world I invented, right down to the religion. Because my world is very different, whenever I sit down to write, I have the most incredible urge to spew background information. I want my reader to understand the world I’ve created, so I want to give them information. Lot’s and lots of information. OMG, do I have information for you.

But is the information for you as the reader, or for me as the author? There you have it–writing it down cements the world in my head.  Now my info-dumps are cut and kept in a file that contains all my background information. I need that info to write the story, but the reader only needs enough bare bones to fire his imagination.

So how shall I do this? A prologue? Well, I’m leaning away from prologues nowadays, although it can be done–David Eddings did it really well in The Belgariad, and Anne McCaffrey also did in her Pern novels. In some cases a prologue sets the stage. But in online writing groups  I frequently  see that a large number of folks don’t bother to read prologues, preferring to get directly to the story. If folks aren’t going to bother reading it, why should I waste my time writing it?

The key to describing the fantasy setting and the social structure of that world is to let the story do it naturally. Deploy the info in small increments as the characters go through their daily life.

Let’s pretend we’re writing a detective novel:

Joe Stone stood, illuminated by the harsh light of the fridge, staring at the six-pack of beer that represented the sum total of his groceries. Grabbing one, he twisted the cap off, and took a long, desperately needed pull.

dump no infoA sour smell rose from his sink as he peered through the broken blinds, more concerned with the dead body in his rundown tool shed than the shabby state of his kitchen. He wondered who the stiff was, and how the dead man pertained to the divorce case he was investigating.

Most importantly, he wondered how he could avoid taking the rap for it.

That he was being deliberately set up was a given, but by who? Pulling his phone  from his pocket, Joe scrolled through his contacts. He had one last friendly ear at the police department, his old partner, Mike Copper. The question was, would Mike believe him or would he leap to the conclusion that Joe had snapped again? 

So, now you have a picture of Joe Stone. He’s probably single,  a private investigator, his home is in disrepair, his empty fridge tells us doesn’t eat at home very often, and he may drink more than is good for him.

Joe is an ex cop, possibly fired for use of excessive force, as he fears he has only one sympathetic ear there. He’s involved in a nasty private investigation, the corpse in the shed tells us that.

TRUST YOUR READERThere’s no need for an info dump to aid the reader in forming a picture of Joe. All that information was deployed by his actions, and while reading the events of the next 72 hours, more snippets will come out, and this complicated man and his world will become more clear to the reader.

Settings make no difference. Writing fantasy novels is the same thing as writing novels set in the real world. Assume your world is real and slip the info in the natural places.

Belnek knelt by the low fire in front of his hut, pulling the turnips out of the coals, brushing the burnt flakes away. His mouth watered, and he wished there had been meat to roast, but once again, when he checked his snares, they had been empty.

Realizing what he had just thought, he gasped,  fearing the god would interpret his thoughts as ingratitude and would make the harvest scant too. He raised his eyes to the east where the shining towers of the gods were said to be. Closing his eyes he, said a prayer to Osin, thanking him for the turnips, asking his blessing on the meal.

Book- onstruction-signNow you see a man who is not rich, but who has a hut and a fire, and has turnips to roast. Prayers come as naturally to him as breathing–he is a devout man, sure his god is all-knowing, and concerned that he is seen as a devoted, grateful man. His snares are apparently empty quite often, so game has become scarce, and it concerns him.

We have the basics of his world, low-tech, agrarian. In that small scene, intimate details of Belnek’s life is shown and in that way the reader has enough info to begin to picture the world outside Belnek’s hut. There is no need to dump a huge amount of information, because it will come out as his story unfolds.

For me the real trick is to rein it in, because I love every last little detail about my imaginary worlds. But that doesn’t mean my readers will love them. Most readers only need the skeleton of the world so that they can visualize it themselves. The hard part is finding that magic moment where you have given them exactly the right amount of details to involve the reader, but not so much they become bored.

Listen to your beta readers, and make adjustments accordingly. If they feel they can be honest with you, they will point out where you need to tighten the narrative, or expand a bit more on the details.

 

 

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