Success only flourishes in perseverance -- ceaseless, restless perseverance.
--Baron Manfred Von Richtofen

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Filling in the Back Story

It's a common problem for fiction writers. How do we let the readers know all the background information without stopping the action cold? There are many ways to handle back story, some better than others. Here are a few:

Info-dump: The least preferred method. Info-dumping is simply telling the reader about the background information. This is usually pretty boring and stops the story dead in its tracks. You can use info-dump in little chunks if you're careful. Here's an example from my own writing:

She had saved them, thank the Twinned God above. As long as the Little Twins still lived, all was not lost.

All those generations ago when the First Twins, Phillip and Rose were born on the same day at the same hour to the leaders on opposite sides of a decades old civil war, the divided nation had seen it as a gift from the Twinned God, a chance to end the bloodshed at last. And so Phillip and Rose had married, united the people of Dnelend, and healed the wounds of years of conflict and hatred. They set forth the law to preserve the peace. The people loved them, and so it was decided that the Twins alone would rule over Dnelend forever. Each generation the new Twins were born to be taught and trained by their foreparents to reign in peace.

Sherrin nuzzled their soft fragrant baby hair. They were alive. That was all that mattered.


This is an example of a little chunk of info-dump at a point in the story where the action has slowed down, and it seemed like a natural time for the main character to be thinking about such things.

NEVER begin your story with info-dump. This is a fatal error.

Dialog: Dialog can be good or bad depending on how you use it. It should be dialog that your characters would actually say, not just characters talking about stuff they already know just for the benefit of the reader. (This happens all the time in Star Trek.) Here are a couple of examples:

"Don't do this," Hannah said. "It's dangerous." McKenzie looked at Jeremy and back at Hannah like a trapped animal. Jeremy only smirked.

"The invaders aren't just some fairy tale," Derek said. "You'll put us all in danger if you do this."

Jeremy's face reddened. "Why don't you go run for some leaders, encyclopedia boy? I'll bet mister smarty already knows which is the right key."


* * *

“You could ask Gavin,” Beatrix said.

“Gavin?” Her heart, already swollen with emotion, felt close to bursting. “I don’t think so,” she said softly. “I haven’t even seen him since . . . since I left.”

“Then he’d be perfect wouldn’t he? You can trust him, and no one has ever seen him in the Twins’ City.”

“I can’t ask Gavin. I just can’t.”

“Then who can you ask?” Mrs. Cuthbrite said. “Beatrix is right. He’s the perfect choice, and he would want to help you.”

Sherrin closed her eyes and pressed her cheek to Branwen’s. She could think of no other solution. She would have to ask Gavin.

Little bits of information: This is probably the best way to handle back story. Just drop little bits of info into the narrative, and trust your readers to figure things out without being told everything. Like this:

Pools of light from the nightlights lit the darkened hallway. One of them shone on a picture of the Salt Lake temple. She paused in front of it. It used to be world famous, she'd been taught. People came from everywhere to see it. She wished she could see it standing in defiance of the destruction of the invaders. Had she been told that or did she just imagine it? No one knew for sure what was Outside. Hannah had been in the refuge since she was only a few hours old. Even the adults didn't know the final outcome of the invasion.

* * *

Jeremy stood. Though Derek couldn't see his face, he could see the anger in his bearing. He clenched his fists at his sides. For a moment, a tingle of nostalgic fear overtook him. It reminded him of the time he'd stopped Jeremy from beating up Paul. Jeremy had stood just that same way then. Derek stood with his feet apart, his hands balled on his hips. I should have hit him then, and I should just hit him now.

These are just little pieces of background and characterization that give a whole lot of information.

Flashbacks: In my opinion, flashbacks are just as bad as info-dump. I don't have any examples, because I just don't use flashbacks. If you want to use a flashback, make sure it is interesting and shown in scene, rather than told in summary.

Prologues: I don't have an example of this either, but they can work pretty well, if you do it right. Again, make sure your prologue is interesting and shown, not told. One good example I can think of is the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Rowling gives us a great, interesting little scene with a ton of information about the world.

Bottom line, getting the back story in can be tricky. It takes practice. I recommend taking a look at books you like and noticing how those authors have handled the back story.


Happy Writitng!

9 comments:

Janyece said...

So really, I should just start from the beginning and span my book over five years and just forget about the flashback thing. eh? This back story thing is so pesky! You'll be happy to know that Kaltin has a new name though! I'm calling him Ithon these days.

Angie said...

I like Ithon! Great name. I was thinking a prologue might be helpful for your book, but it's YOUR book, so you get to decide. :)

Janay said...

Thank you thank you thank you!!!!

Angie said...

You're welcome, Janay. I hope to do these type of writing basics posts more often. It helps me, too.

Lady Glamis said...

I saw you on the QT Tracker blog and thought I'd drop by and say hello.

This is a great post! Thanks for the tips. :)

We have certain things in common. I live in Utah, too, so I'm sure you can guess what the common thing is. Nice to meet you!

Angie said...

Nice to meet you, too, Lady Glamis. Thanks for having a look at the blog!

Suzette Saxton said...

Great post, Angie! As soon as I figure out how, I'll link to your blog from mine. :)

ElanaJ said...

Angie! I had no idea you had a blog. Added to my faves. What a great post - and such a trap for writers. Thanks!

Emily Cross said...

This is such an excellent post - really informative - i may add you! are those your kids in the banner? they are adorable!

Anyhoo i'm sorry if this is a bit out of the blue and 'pluggish by nature', but i've started a writer's forum http://thewriterschronicle.forumotion.net/index.htm
where aspiring authors etc. can come and chat and discuss topics and ideas and basically help each other.

I love blogging but it can be both hard to get a readership and connect with them so i thought a community forum would be a great way to network.

The forum is only starting out but i'm hoping it will grow,

I'd really appreciate it if you could take the time and have a look around.

thanks emily.