I am currently in the process of re-writing my play Black Tape as a novel. Because of the change in format, more needs to simply happen - which I am entirely okay with. Main feature of the universe in which it is set is that death (and by extension afterlife, destiny and the flow of time itself) is run as a heavily bureaucratic LLC.

I have considered introducing a new protagonist into the role of new employee to make transition into this world easier on the reader, but I am afraid this would drag too far away from the main story which mostly involves the higher-ups.

What alternate techniques could I employ without diving into "as you know" territory?


3 Answers 3


I think it will be useful to have a character the readers can identify with, who doesn't understand anything, but that doesn't mean you have to spend all your time explaining the backstory to him. After all, one of the most universal characteristics of bureaucracies is confusion and misunderstandings. That character could spend the entire book bewildered.

He also doesn't have to take the reader away from the main plot. It would be fairly simple to make him a new flunky for a higher-up, or maybe someone promoted far above their experience level for mysterious reasons.

The best advice I've heard on complex backstories, or really any details of the writing is from Sturgeon, via Delany, which is that you, the author need to know everything, but the characters need know only as much as the plot demands. In this case, you, and the higher-up characters, should know and understand all the arcane rules of the bureaucracy, but the reader doesn't necessarily need to know any of them.


One option is not to. Figure out the rules, make them very strong, and write them down, but don't put them in your novel. Just make sure that everything obeys those rules. Eventually the reader will figure it out just by dropping them in and the characters operating by them. This gives a sort of "in medias res" feeling, and isn't for everyone, but it works to good effect in many novels. It's a classic approach of David Brin, for example.


Adding another character that gives you a low-down often amounts to an info dump and can make the resulting narrative heavy and tedious to read.

Perhaps the character has a cell phone or a hotline he can call when he's stuck or in trouble. 1-800-Hell or something.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.