As discussed in last week’s post, one thing we do not want our readers to be while reading our books is bored. Intrigued? Yes. Enchanted? Yes. Moved to tears? Certainly. Overcome with joy? Definitely. Encouraged? Inspired? Entertained? Yes. Yes!! YES!!!
I recently came up with the following proverb: “Bore me once, shame on you. Bore me twice, shame on you again and now I’m closing your book.”
Profound, isn’t it? I thought of it while reading a novel that opens with a mega dose of background information about the protagonist. I told myself, “This is boring me. I don’t care about the main character’s credentials and education history. I don’t want to read a résumé – I want to read a story!” But, as a sensitive writer who empathizes with others of my breed, I wanted to give the book a second chance, hoping the liberal data dumping was a one-time mistake.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The compelling action with which the book began was replaced by pages and pages of explanation, of stage setting, if you will. Thorough character descriptions and life histories slowed down the pace and bogged down the narrative with clunky details – a huge no-no. (And did I mention this book is supposed to be a thriller?)
I like this quote from literary agent and author Evan Marshall:
“Another mistake is presenting too much background information, and doing so in the first few pages. Writers should begin their stories with the event that kicks off the story, and then spoon-feed us background information only when it’s needed to understand what’s going on.”
A novel that begins with a barrage of background info is a sure sign that the author is weak when it comes to both characters and plotting, i.e., two of the three all-important pillars that hold the story together. Background information shows that the author has done his or her research, which is good, but researching doesn’t equal storytelling. Again, our readers open our books to be pulled into different worlds, to acquaint themselves with cool characters, to be immersed in a story. They don’t want to feel as if they’re reading an autobiography or academic textbook, which is what chunks of background information often smack of.
From my experience as a reader and a writer who loves to build herself some far-fetched worlds, Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers are typically the ones guiltiest of info dumping. I mean, how can one resist describing, with precise, microscopic detail, the history of every warlord and battle fought during the bloody, five-decade-long reign of Sadron the Terrible? Why focus on developing our main characters when so much time could be devoted to the mystical kingdom of Boresalot and the black magic that cursed it centuries ago?
It’s very easy for our priorities to go haywire. And we often forget that after readers finish our books, they’ll quickly forget the frills and impressive displays of our imaginative prowess, but they won’t forget our characters and what they went through.
An example of info dumping would be, “Brad fidgeted as he waited in the doctor’s office. He’d always hated doctors because it had been a doctor who’d told him his mom was dead…”
This isn’t altogether bad, but it’s not a good idea to start Chapter One with it, namely because it “dumps” backstory onto the reader. Readers simply don’t care about Brad yet because they don’t know him, and therefore they won’t care about his past. Give Brad something interesting to do in the present, and then sprinkle in backstory – spoon-feed it, as Marshall said – little by little throughout the story.
“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”
– Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management
Does backstory have a place in our work? Absolutely.
- Backstory can be used to paint a richer psychological portrait of a character. Going back to my made-up medieval example above, backstory could be used to explain why Sadron the Terrible is, well, just so terrible.
- Backstory can boost the level of suspense in some cases. For example, if our valiant knight Reynard finds himself about to do battle with ol’ Sadron in a river, and he once had a near-death experience in a river, that tidbit of info can turn up the tension in the present scene.
- Backstory can flesh out characters in a way that connects the reader with them more deeply. For example, backstory may explain how Sir Reynard, when he was just a wee page, witnessed Sadron the Terrible singlehandedly slay innocent villagers, an event that inspired Reynard to stop the tyrant the moment he was knighted.
Some backstory is necessary in most stories. In the movie Man of Steel, for example, it’s necessary to know that Superman came from the planet Krypton and was sent to Earth in a programmed rocket. In Beauty and the Beast, it’s important we know that the Beast was once a handsome, albeit arrogant, prince and that a spell was cast on his castle.
Our aim as writers shouldn’t be to eliminate backstory, but to be deliberate and purposeful when we use it.
I’ll be back next week with tips on how to use backstory effectively. Until then, I encourage you to revisit the opening pages of your work in progress and see if there’s backstory to be trimmed down, or, even better, cut out completely! Let your readers get to know your characters and the world they inhabit in the present. Bring in pertinent snippets of their past only when you’re certain the readers are invested enough to care.
I hope you’ve found today’s post helpful! Please comment below or tweet me @dandersontyler to share your thoughts on backstory and how you incorporate it into your work!
 The third pillar is setting.