Thursday, July 17, 2008

Backstory, Info Dumps, and "As You Know, Bob-isms..."

On Tuesday, I blogged about where a story actually begins, and today, I'm going to expand on that a little more. These are three bad things to put into your writing. They slow the pace, they can be boring, and they will hardly keep a reader interested in what you've written. But, they are also relatively easy to spot and easy to avoid as well.

1. Backstory - Quite simply, backstory is everything that has happened to your hero/heroine up to the point where your story actually begins. It happens when a writer tries to cram everything s/he knows about this character into the story in order to get you (the reader) to know this character. The problem is, most backstory is boring as anything and the reader is not emotionally invested enough in the character to care very much. It's unnecessary detail and should be avoided at all costs. A reader doesn't need to know the hero/heroine's life story up to the point where the actual story begins.

There is nothing wrong with a detail here or there, but the entire life story is to be avoided. Entirely. In You Belong to Me - Brenna (the heroine) has been physically abused by her stepfather for ten years. As a result, she is timid, frightened, and keeps the abuse a secret from her mother because she is terrified of her stepfather. But, since the story opens the night her stepfather introduces Brenna to her future husband, to describe the ten years of abuse beforehand would be boring as anything. However, I did slip some of her history into the opening pages - the reader knows she's been living with this jerk for ten years, and that he thinks nothing of leaving bruises on her. The reader knows the household servants look the other way and that Brenna has never uttered a word of the beatings to anyone. That's it. It's enough to know that she's been basically trained to be submissive and meek, unless she really wants to get pummeled. It's enough to give the reader a sense of why she is as timid as she is. The reader doesn't need to know everything that happened over those ten years - just the basics.

If it isn't absolutely necessary or it doesn't move the story forward, cut it out. If it's more than a paragraph (maybe two, at the very most - and I would recommend as little backstory as possible), it's too much backstory.

2. Info Dumps - An info dump is pretty much what the name says. A chunk of information simply dropped into a book. It can be something the writer has researched and is now explaining to the reader. It can also be backstory. Or description. It doesn't matter what it is, it slows the pace down and can jerk a reader out of the story. Especially if it involves a big chunk of exposition. Basically, the way to remedy this is to break it up and sprinkle it through the book. It isn't necessary to describe someone from the top of their head to the tips of their shoes, or a room down to the pattern of the hem of a curtain. Again, you need give only enough information for a reader to form a vision of whatever it is you are trying to explain or describe. Break it up into bits and pieces, or use dialogue to get information to the reader. However, when using dialogue, be careful not to fall into the next trap. The dreaded...

3. "As You Know, Bob..." This syndrome gets its name from silly dialogue used simply to convey facts. It's a verbal info dump. It adds nothing to the plot but it thrown in there to show that the writer did research. There are better ways of getting some facts into a story without resorting to one character basically offering up a college lecture on the subject. Basically, what you want to do is convey the information without being obvious about it. It shouldn't sound like a character is reciting a couple of pages from a text book, but like normal conversation in real life. It should sound natural, not like the character is obviously reciting a litany of facts about whatever topic the characters are discussing.

When you've taken a bazillion pages of notes on things, it's tempting to shove as much of that information as you can into the book. Of course you want readers to know that you did research, and it can be as much work as actually writing the book itself. However, when was the last time someone curled up with a good history text book for some light reading? I'm sure someone out there has (hmm...?), but it's important to weave those facts into the story without jarring the reader from the story. Show what you've learned, don't just spill it onto the page. You don't want anything to bog the pace and bore the reader. A bored reader is a lost reader. They'll put down the book and just never pick it up again. And that's the last thing any writer wants.

1 comment:

Marian said...

Good post! It's surprising, when I think of the characters in novels which I've enjoyed, how little I know of their childhoods, their preferences in clothes, their phobias, their fondest memories of their parents, etc. Those character sheets which a lot of writers faithfully fill out may be a stumbling block, because once all that information is put down in the character sheet, the writer may feel it needs to be in the story as well.

A character is like an iceberg. The writer may see all of it, but the readers only need the part that's sticking up out of the story. And that sounds vaguely kinky, so I'll stop there.