We’ve had a request this week from Sally, who would like to:
‘see a post about how to feed in back story without swamping the narrative drive and tension’. ‘
We writers of speculative fiction spend so much time building worlds, with distinct societies each with their own history then we try to write about the people who live there. This leads to the dreaded info-dump. The people who live in the writer’s invented world already know their customs and history. How is the writer going to convey this to the reader?
If you’re Tolkien you won’t worry, you’ll put it all in, including the poetry you wrote about events that happened a thousand years ago.
But this is hardly ideal. The modern reader wants ‘bang for their buck’ they want to be swept away on an adventure, not to be lectured.Since I am always having trouble with this one I asked the ROR team for their insight.
Richard Harland says:
FEEDING THROUGH A BACKSTORY
One method is for the author simply to tell what happened.
Five years ago, Denny had had an affair with …
The house had been inhabited by drug gangs, and a brutal murder had occurred just months before Vee and Lorrie moved in …
If you kicked off your first chapter with a dramatic scene, telling some backstory could be a way of starting your second chapter. Old-fashioned, but simple and economical.
For a writer nowadays, the obvious method for feeding through a backstory is to have a main character remember the past. It’s effective so long as it doesn’t look like a cheat. The only thing worse than a character standing in front of the mirror and thinking about his/her appearance is a character standing in front of the mirror and remembering about his/her past life and recent history. So corny and clichéd!
Please, can we have a character’s memories genuinely prompted by something that happens, something that’s said? And when they are prompted, can they look like genuine memories rather than a plot synopsis?
When we remember past events, we rarely run through the full story—this-led-to-that-led-to-the-other—which we already know. We zoom in on the emotionally charged highlights and the bits that are relevant to us right now.
I reckon backstory memories often seem more plausible when they’re questions rather than statements. We don’t pore over the detail of past events merely to re-state them to ourselves, but we do when we’re puzzled or uncertain about what happened. We might run through the whole chain of cause and effect if we’re trying to spot something that doesn’t gel, something that doesn’t make sense to us.
Backstory and exposition is some of the toughest material to work into a decent narrative. It’s especially difficult in speculative fiction, where your story may depend upon some element which is entirely impossible in the world as we know it.
I think that the real trick isn’t fitting the stuff in. I believe it lies in knowing how much to leave out.
The joy of reading is that it’s an interactive, constructive process. The readers literally rebuild the narrative in their minds as they work through the story, and it’s that process of engagement, that act of rebuilding which constitutes the most engrossing and rewarding part of reading a story. The very best stories leave you full of questions and suppositions afterwards, imagining what might have happened next, or what might have occurred ‘off-screen’ at crucial moments in the plot development.
The point I’m making is that every time we provide backstory, we take away from the reader an opportunity for creation, for real engagement, for ownership of the story. Every time the author says canonically: “C happened because A and B happened first, in that order”, we eliminate the rest of an infinite alphabet of possibilities that the reader might well find more intriguing than our own.
Naturally, there are times when backstory is necessary. But in practice, it’s usually far less necessary than new authors imagine.
If you must incorporate backstory, in practical terms there are at least three ways to manage it without too much slowing. Of course, you can always step out into the professorial, explanatory storyteller POV beloved of the Tolkien school of writing, but unless you’re lining up to churn out a thousand pages or so, that’s probably not your best bet. (Still, there’s a market for it, obviously!) But if you’re interested in keeping the story moving, the easiest way to incorporate necessary backstory is to have one of your characters deliver it. There are three ways to consider this.
1) None of the characters knows the information, but they have to find out: In this case, discovering the backstory becomes an integral part of the story. Clues are delivered. Information can be obtained, but uncovering that information is a quest in itself, an obstacle to be overcome before the plot can be fully resolved. Think about crime fiction: scenes of interrogation, examination, detection, and so forth. The trick is to remember the old rule: every scene requires conflict of some sort – so if your characters are just going to go to the library to look up old land deeds, for example, someone else should get there first and steal the critical information, or lose it in the vaults. Or perhaps the information is kept secure, and it has to be stolen. There are as many ways to carry this out as there are stories, but it can be remarkably effective.
2) One character knows the information, and can tell another, or act on it. And once again, the key here is to incorporate the delivery of information into the action itself. Absolutely do not have your characters sitting in a bar, drinking quietly, saying things like “Lo, it is written that during the final days of the Fornikarr Imperium the dread tantric master Duu-phuss the Lightly Endowed forged the now-legendary Three Dildoes of Fire at the command of Empress Booblatooie the Ninth…”
It’s acceptable to have one character ask a simple question for a reasonably simple response. It’s even acceptable to have one character deliver vital information to another at a necessary time. But dialogue doesn’t move the plot or develop action, so as a rule, if you can have your characters taking action while the information is passed on, you’re better off. Take the ridiculous lines above: if there was a bar fight going on, involving one of the minions of the enemy, the character delivering the information will have to keep it to a minimum, perhaps shouting it in bursts between clobbering bad guys – or whispering it nervously while the villains stalk the room, seeking their victims. Either way, we’ve got something going on, not just expository dialogue.
3) Both characters know the information, and the reader needs to know it too: This is at once the most interesting, challenging, and dangerous situation. This is the place where new writers start having characters say things like “As you know…”, which is a horrible concept. How often do real world people go around telling each other things that both already know? You’d sound like a pompous idiot if you tried to explain to someone that you’d arrived in “…a motor car, which as you know is a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine requiring refined petroleum products to operate…”
The joy of this situation for the writer is that it presents not just a hazard, but a real opportunity. If you’re using POV well, you can actually leave out the information, except for appropriate references in dialogue. Taking example above, you might have one character say to the other “… sorry I’m late. Ran out of petrol.” Naturally, in this real world, the only response to that would perhaps be derisive laughter. But a reader who knows nothing of cars and petrol now has the opportunity to wonder, and imagine for herself what ‘petrol’ might be.
Done well, this approach greatly strengthens the verisimilitude of the work, making the setting more intriguing and believable, and likewise strengthens the characters as part of that setting. When I edited the Canterbury 2100 anthology, for example, I had three separate stories from different authors, each of which explained why there were wolves running around England in 2109. However, the point of the anthology was to have characters telling oral stories to one another, and as editor, I realised that for the people of 2109, wild wolves would be an accepted fact of life. Explaining them would be like explaining ‘cars’ to you or I. So I very simply cut away all explanation of the wolves, and just left them in the stories for readers to wonder at – and to realise that this was a world in which wolves were a commonplace.
Some of the best examples of this technique come from writers like Cordwainer Smith, or more recently, Terry Dowling. Both of them, in constructing their fantastic worlds, have been quite willing to use evocative names and images without fully explaining them for the readers. We’re left to marvel at concepts like the Congohelium, or Underpeople, or Dowling’s land-sailing ships, all of which are simply accepted by the characters, and integrated easily into the narrative.
This is easily my favourite way of delivering backstory, and when I see it used well, it never fails to draw me into a narrative, and leave me wondering about the implications and the histories left unspoken by the author. The effect of this minimalist delivery is so strong and profound that it illustrates in the best possible way the old saw that ‘less is more’ – and in the case of backstory, the more you can leave to the imagination of the reader, the stronger your tale will be!