12

Think action movie. Think two heavily-armed men - one chasing the other over rooftops, down through buildings and into the mean streets of a crowded city. Think big guns, explosions and other loud noises. Think danger. Think high-octane thrills.

The scene fades, the noise ends and then we are seeing a child being chastised by a father-figure. It becomes clear, after an extended scene, that this is the past and that the child will become one of the figures involved in the chase. It turns out that this scene is background information that tells us why the character has turned out to be a violent man. This is backstory, info-dump and (some might say) a darned nuisance all at the same time.

Question: what innovative ways are available to deliver background information without preventing the reader from enjoying the main storyline?

  • One not innovative way to provide background is to not provide background. If it's not part of the plot, why are we seeing it? If it is, then when and why and how we see it will be not merely clear, but required. BTW it's not clear - are you writing a screenplay or a novel or something else? – Todd Wilcox Jun 21 '18 at 13:48
12

I wouldn't call this innovative, just borrowing a technique from other walks of life.

The Sandwich method. You start with something they like, then something they might like less, then immediately follow up with something they like again.

So, take your chase scene. Start with bullets flying and things exploding. Then, when one of them stops to catch their breath (or what have you), you segue into a part of a flashback.

You show one of the characters being all sentimental. Maybe even the bad buy.

I lost him, for now. Doubling over, my lungs feel about ready to explode. Maybe I'm getting too old for this shit. Or maybe it was more fun when it was mom chasing me around the house with a broom, screaming that she was gonna beat be bloody.

Then, out of nowhere, there's a sound, a snapped twig, a door jerked open, and the chase is back on. It allows the character to catch his breath, it allows the reader to relax a little, but it always comes with the tension that this little break will end sooner or later.

11

The least obtrusive way to deliver background information is to leave it out. ...for now.

You are painting an action scene with your words. Your goal is to keep the reader spellbound, excited and emotionally involved. This is no time to delve into the psychological roots of why the characters are fighting. One of them wants to kill the other and the other wants to survive. There is no need for more details than that in the opening scene.

It is vital that you know why your characters are fighting. Finding those answers for yourself may involve a lot of work, world-building and character-building. You may have to develop dozens of pages of backstory to get your characters to where your story begins, but none of that hard-won knowledge is needed or welcome in the opening scenes. Most of it will probably never make it into your book at all.

Backstory provides completeness and therefore continuity to your story. A long and detailed backstory is like a treasure chest which you can turn to when a current chapter needs something special. By slowly revealing previous hidden details about your characters, you gradually fill in the reader's understanding of the "why" behind what is going on. By trickling those details out slowly, you keep the reader curious and thereby keep them engaged.

If some (most) of your backstory never gets included, that is okay. Readers are pretty intuitive and will figure out or at least have a fan theory about the bits you leave out. And those undisclosed treasures will be very useful should you choose to write a sequel.

Keep Writing

5

Movies and books are different mediums. With a skillfully engineered scene, a movie director can deliver enormous amounts of information in seconds; a 30 second chase scene tells us all we need to know about good guy & bad guy & setting & time period & character. We don't need their names or a single word of dialogue; their emotions are on their faces and in their body language, including when the villain succeeds and the hero fails. The average reader consumes 200 wpm, 100 words in 30 seconds. Less than half a page, 2 or 3 paragraphs, and you simply cannot do the same job as film inside the reader's window of "I don't care anymore."

So rule 1: Do not open with a high-stakes action sequence; readers will not care because they don't care about the characters, and you can't write a high-stakes battle or pursuit and get across enough information to make them care in the opening. They don't know who to root for; unlike the movie where a skillful director can show them who to root for in the first second.

Elsewhere, BG information can be delivered by direct internal contemplation (thoughts, memories), indirect contemplation (she recognized him, the weatherman from channel 7, the only reason her mother watches the weather) direct dialogue (me telling you about my past, or a story from my past that reveals something about my character), indirect dialogue (my sibling or lifelong friend or parent telling you about my past), or things like detection and inference (reading my diary, seeing an old home movie or photographs with me in it). Or flashback, though I never use that mechanism.

Those are mechanisms. They can stray into info-dump, but the way to prevent that is to be stingy with background information, and deliver only what is immediately relevant to the reader and character; only reveal, through some mechanism, what the reader (or another character) needs to know to clarify this character, her emotions and actions. Dole out background and don't be in a rush to deliver it.

Just like with new acquaintances IRL. We can meet somebody new, in the office or school or on a flight somewhere, and feel something on the spectrum from "dislike" to "indifference" to "like" without knowing anything about their background. One harsh line to a child may be all it takes; one tasteless joke or even expression or lingering glance resting on a woman's breasts. We don't need to know this guy's life story to know he is a lecherous old jerk.

The same with characters, for readers. Don't aim to get us invested in your character all at once. Give us one important point through one of the above mechanisms, a few dozen words, then refrain; dole it out to us in pieces small enough to swallow without choking on it.

This does not really demand much planning on the part of the author, as the story progresses opportunities to express "character" will appear. Elements of the character are expressed then, when they matter to the story; when they have consequences in how this fictional character reacts, decides, chooses, etc. As an author, keep your eyes open to constantly creating tiny conflicts, which help reveal character. Mary arrives at the pasticciere half an hour late, all that is left is a lemon danish, and a blueberry one. She usually buys one apple turnover. Which does she buy? The lemon? The blueberry? Both, in case she doesn't like one of them? Neither? Is it a firm choice; definitely lemon? or she hates lemon? Maybe she decides Screw fruit! I'm having chocolates for breakfast, it's all sugar anyway.

Reveal what is necessary for the reader to know about your character, as they need to know it. If you have a good story, those details will be crucial to how the story turns out, who she is will guide her actions and decisions and be crucial to the turning points in the plot, so there will be plenty of opportunities to show the background as you go, a hundred words or so at a time.

2

In the book I'm reading right now, The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell does an excellent job of giving background information without it feeling like an information dump. In the first section of the book, "A Hot Spell", he switches between the primary story and a background story from 8 years prior.

Both the primary and background stories are told in a first person by our protagonist, Holly Sykes. The background sections are told at natural moments in the story. They are short, but clearly demarcated, in the character's voice, as "Holly Sykes and the Weird Shit, Part 1", "Holly Sykes and the Weird Shit, Part 2", "Weird Shit, Last Act".

As I reader, I'm already primed for this because, well, so far it appears to be a realist novel told from the perspective of a 15 year old girl, but some slightly weird shit has happened already (Holly's brother appears to read her mind, for one), and I'm looking for some explanation. Both the primary story line and the background story line are compelling, they're both in the same voice, and I get a clear and almost immediate payoff for paying attention. The things I learn in the brief "weird shit" parts are relevant to understanding both the characters AND the action of the primary story line.

To sum up, good techniques in The Bone Clocks for back story:

  1. Doesn't break the narrative flow (in style, voice, and content, it's clearly part of the same story)
  2. The reader is looking for it
  3. It's compelling on its own
  4. It's relevant at more than one level (character and action)
  5. There is an immediate payoff

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