Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. The past shapes what we know as the here and now. The past also gives history to our characters, so when they first step onto the page, they are formed in the author’s mind and ready to begin their journey.
Every writer knows the backstory is what tells us who the characters are as people and why they’re the way they are. At the beginning of our career, it seems logical to inform the reader of that history upfront. “Before you can understand that, you need to know this.”
As we progress, we learn not to drop the history of the intended conflict in the first five pages of a novel or to waste the first three paragraphs of a short story on it.
We understand that those are the pages and paragraphs editors look at first. From those pages, acquisitions editors will 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. For us, the prospective reader is the acquisition editor. They will buy the book if they like what they see on those pages.
Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and negate our hooks. We know that infodumps block the doors from one scene to the next.
But knowing this and putting it into action are two different things.
So, how do our favorite authors 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) it’s 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, both spoken and internal, is the easiest way to dole out information but can be the gateway to an infodump.
- Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. (Trust the voice of experience, please.)
Doling out the information is a double-edged sword, one all authors must learn to wield with skill. Beginnings must be active, yet those precious first lines must step onto the stage in such a way that they are original, informative, and engaging.
After we open with our best work, the passages and chapters that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening pages. If not, the reader may be disappointed and choose to not buy any more books by us.
We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined,’ a medical expression indicating the patient has died. When the story arc is imbalanced, it can flatline in two ways:
- Not enough backstory: The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.
- Too much backstory: The pauses become halts, long passages of random info dumps that have little to do with the action.
A good way to avoid this is to have your characters briefly discuss what is on their minds. Then they will bravely muck on to the next event, keeping the story moving at a good pace.
- Don’t allow conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition.
- Do set forth the necessary information.
This can be accomplished in several ways. For my novels and short stories, I tend to write in either a close third-person or first-person point of view, so my comments in this post are geared toward that style of writing.
Short moments of introspection (thinking, reminiscing, etc.) offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story. Their thoughts shed light on how they really feel, illuminating their secret fears or voicing knowledge, giving it to the reader at the moment it is needed.
Be aware: if you are writing from an omniscient POV, this can be tricky and lead to “head-hopping,” which can lead to confusion on the reader’s part. When I change point-of-view characters, I do a hard scene or chapter break.
Letters and messages received or written can give needed information.
Conversations between witnesses and adversarial dialogues (quarrels) can shine a light on a festering past. But remember, if you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward and miss what was really important or close the book and walk away.
Those are only a few ways to briefly open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are and how the other characters see them. They offer a hint of how the characters became the way they are portrayed.
In the most gripping narratives I have read, character introspection is brief but delivers crucial information. Their internal monologues illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in the story arc, cluing the reader in on what is happening and why.
As the plot progresses, conversation and introspection are good opportunities to deliver information not previously discussed.
Consider the most popular genre: Romance novels. These things fly off the shelves. Why?
- Because the path to love is never straightforward, and a reward awaits the reader who sticks with it.
- Some characters will have an air of mystery about their past that isn’t fully revealed until the end.
The pacing in a Romance novel is crucial and is something all writers can learn from:
- 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),
- Finally, the two overcome the circumstances and things that have barred the way to their true happiness. (Gratification and endorphins abound.)
Romance novels average 50,000 to 70,000 words. In shorter novels, there is no room for sweeping, epic backstories. 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 more determined to see the happy ending.
As a reader, I can say that a long-winded rant is not a reward.
This holds true in every book and story, regardless of 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.
It’s difficult to see bloated exposition 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 myself, “What can be cut that won’t affect the flow or gut the logic of this exchange? Can some of this be moved to a later conversation?”
Even with all the effort I apply to it, my editor will find things that don’t matter. She will gently take a metaphorical axe to it, highlighting that which doesn’t advance the story or add to the intrigue.
Sometimes we write brilliantly; other times, not so much. Sorting the diamonds from the gravel is hard when it comes to doling out the backstory, but your readers will be glad you made an effort.